“Our Multi-Stage Buffer Stores Solar Energy And Boosts It Up To The Main Traction Battery Voltage”

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Vayve Mobility Team with their partially solar powered car EVA

Imagine driving to your office daily in an air-conditioned electric car, that weighs just 500 kilograms and runs partly on solar energy, while listening to your favourite tunes! Pune-based startup, Vayve Mobility, has introduced a completely new category of vehicles for the average urban Indian commuter, who navigates through tricky lanes and endures traffic woes. Co-founder Nilesh Bajaj, tells Yashasvini Razdan from Electronics For You, what makes their car special…

Q. What inspired the establishment of Vayve Mobility, and what has been your journey so far?

Vayve Mobility was founded by four of us. We, the founders, have known each other long, having met over the years. After completing my master’s from IIT Bombay in 2011, I worked on some government projects on the campus, where I met my first co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Saurabh Mehta. In 2014, Saurabh and I started Vayve Technologies in Mumbai, specializing in electronic design and manufacturing for B2B applications. One of our major projects was the television rating system for India (TRP ratings), where we developed the complete hardware, software, and firmware for the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC). We manufactured over one lakh meters across India, responsible for the TRP ratings.

Our project manager, Ankita Jain, joined us in 2015. Our fourth co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Vilas Deshpande, was with Procter and Gamble (P&G), USA, at that time, one of the largest advertisers in India. We interacted with him during our BARC project, and when we mentioned that we were working on an electric car, he became very interested. Last year, after 26 years of service, Vilas left P&G and returned to India to be a full-time part of this project.

From 2018 to 2019, Saurabh and I explored various components, batteries, battery management systems (BMS), controllers, etc., for electric vehicles. However, we realized we wanted to solve a system-level problem rather than just focus on individual components. We began building an electric vehicle while simultaneously developing the core technologies associated with it. We initiated the development of Eva in 2019. After the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we relocated from Mumbai to Pune due to the city’s larger ecosystem for automotive components and suppliers. Since then, we have been working full-time on this project.

Q. Why did you develop a small electric car instead of a traditional electric two-wheeler for daily commutes?

We recognised that simply removing the engine from a conventional automobile and replacing it with a motor did not align with our vision. Transitioning from an internal combustion (IC) engine to an electric vehicle entails significant differences in packaging, efficiency parameters, and weight distribution across the vehicle. As we transitioned to electric, new possibilities emerged for smaller electric vehicles that were not feasible with IC engines. While smaller engines have limitations related to thermal and airflow, these challenges are overcome with electric vehicles, allowing for the design of any desired form factor with batteries.

Micro-mobility, or urban mobility, is a vehicle category that has been around for over 50 years. For city travel, a large vehicle is unnecessary. While two-wheelers are convenient, they lack the safety and comfort of a car. Conversely, a car must not be a five-seater, 500-kilometre range vehicle. We believe there is a completely new category that fits between two-wheelers and today’s four-wheelers.

Q. What makes your product innovative, and how advanced is the technology employed?

There are innovations on multiple levels. We have innovations in battery technology, vehicle architecture, and thermal management system. Our biggest innovation lies in integrating the solar roof, which is one of the biggest differentiators from any other vehicle out there. We have better exhaust gas management in case of a thermal runaway. So then we have some IP(s) around this battery technology. So that’s why I mean there are a lot of innovations that have happened in very, very small segments; the next innovation would come in the controller, and so that the work has recently started.  But to start with the innovation in the battery pack and the battery management system (BMS) is completely new.

Q. Why aren’t solar-powered cars more prevalent?

Integrating a solar roof with a vehicle for some time has been possible, yet it remains uncommon in mainstream vehicles. The main reason is the limited efficiency of solar panels, typically ranging between 20 to 24%. Even if the entire roof is covered with solar panels, heavy vehicles only gain an additional range of one to five kilometres. Therefore, unless the vehicle is lightweight and equipped with high-efficiency solar panels, integrating a solar roof doesn’t provide a significant benefit

This is the first time such a lightweight personal mobility solution is coming up. Integrating the solar roof made a lot of sense, both from an economic and a functional point of view. Our solar roof gives you a range of 10 to 12 kilometres daily. While this may not seem substantial initially, it is important to consider India’s abundant solar radiation. We get almost 300 solar days across the country, more in the western and central regions. That means you will get at least 3000 kilometres only using solar every year for most people who travel less than 10,000 kilometres a year. So, more than 30% of your travel can happen purely from solar, which is significant.

Dissecting the solar tech

Q. How have you integrated a solar roof and used energy to run the car efficiently?

Integrating a solar panel is not just about putting the solar panel because your batteries operate on a different voltage level while your solar panel is generally on a lower voltage. So, we have to create a multi-stage buffer system that stores the energy generated by the solar in these interim buffers and then boosts up to the main traction battery voltage. So, a lot of engineering goes into making this system which can capture solar energy while you are stationary or in motion.

We have a case for capturing energy, and whenever the battery is not discharging, you can transfer the battery or this energy to the main battery. We have a modular and serviceable battery pack, which is liquid-cooled. So, these are three very key features that make us different.

Our battery modules can be independently replaced and serviced, and the module itself is serviceable to the cell level. So that is something which most of the companies are not providing. Because once you have that, and if you have a cylindrical cell and that laser welded, complete module, it is very hard to do servicing without damaging the cell. So we have a design where we can do that, plus we have single-sided endplate cooling, which improves the cell lifecycle and safety.

Q. What do you mean by modular and rent serviceable battery pack?

To reduce cost and for structural design constraints, you can either have a monolithic or, at most, two modules in which the batteries normally split. Many data vehicles have older platforms, and to fit the battery pack, they split it into the space one near the fuel tank and in the rear seat. Despite the split, the battery pack is still a very big module for servicing.

We have created battery modules that are far more modular. Eva has a battery capacity of almost 15-16 kWh. We have independent modules, each with its own independent BMS module for cooling and is independently packaged. Multiple such modules go in one vehicle, and each can be replaced. The module is an intellectual property for Vayve, and we have been filing for patents as we are doing liquid cooling plus exhaust gas management. We have assembled the pack so that it is possible to do cell-level service. That is something which nobody has done. It is something novel. If there is a problem in one of the modules, it can just be replaced by a temporary module at the service centre.

Q. Why use smaller modules instead of one large module?

When we talk about sustainability, it is not just about going electric; we need to consider the waste generated by these cells. Throwing a module because a few cells get damaged or are not working properly is not sustainable. If we can pinpoint which cell has the issue and we can replace that cell, that is the highest level of sustainability one can have. With a big module, no company in the country or the world will provide a full module replacement because managing such an inventory is very expensive. We are just replacing that one module until it goes to the service centre, and you can replace it later. This way, the downtime for the serviceability of the vehicle is less.

Q. What is the technology that allows you to replace a single module?

That’s where our assembly technology technique comes into play. We are not using the standard techniques everybody else follows, such as spot welding or laser welding. We are using a combination of assembly techniques, and with that, we can achieve a way in which each cell follows the AIS 156 for safety. Each cell has a fuse, and we are following that. In case of a short circuit in the cell, the fuse will automatically blow and go to a circuit. I will be able to replace that cell in the modules, achievable by a combination of assembly processes.

Q. Once you get the patent for this technology, would you be willing to share it with others?

Yes, because we don’t believe in gate-keeping technology. We would be willing to licence it for people interested in using this technology.

Creating Vayves

Q. What is EVA’s USP?

Our product is primarily designed for the Indian market while also considering its potential for the global market. Vehicles such as the Toyota C pod in Japan or MicroLino in Europe have different pricing and regulatory requirements. We’ve designed our product keeping the requirements of Indian users in mind. Traffic and parking space are big issues in larger cities, such as Mumbai and Bangalore; hence we wanted something with a narrow body form factor. We have tandem seating instead of side-by-side seating. The main aim is to be manoeuvrable in the city traffic, easy to park and drive. Many people don’t want to drive very big cars in traffic.

There are no conventional players right now in this category as most companies today are talking about bigger electric cars like long-range SUVs priced at ₹15 lakh to ₹30 lakh. We feel that the Indian market has much potential under the ₹10 lakh category. Even today, 50% of the cars sold in India are under ten lakh rupees, which is where our focus lies. We want to make a vehicle which is ideal for city use.

We aim not to develop a vehicle for all purposes or long trips; instead, we aim to optimize a vehicle specifically for everyday city commuting, which accounts for 90% of most people’s trips.

Q. Are you working on any other products as a part of your portfolio?

We are working on one more product in the commercial category. We are working on an electric taxi. Most ride-hailing apps use personal vehicles as taxis. We learnt that a taxi needs to have specific features for that application. So, we are developing a platform which is purely for ride-hailing. It is a five-seater product with 400 litres of boot space, ideal for the cab segment. So two products are getting developed. Many technology is common, including the battery pack and battery management system (BMS). The difference lies in the application and how we look at the target audience.

Q. Why did you choose Pune as the centre for your operations?

Pune is the design centre and prototyping facility. We set base in Pune because since we created our prototype in 2021, we have been in touch with many tier-one suppliers in and around the city for the components for manufacturing and assembly.

We will be starting small-scale production around a larger manufacturing setup. We are still discussing whether that should happen in or around Pune or some other place because many states are developing their EV policies. We are still evaluating which state’s EV policies will support our manufacturing process.

Q. Are you looking for any partners who can help you with the whole design, manufacturing and assembly?

Apart from our existing suppliers, we are already talking to many tier-one suppliers working with Tata and Maruti and helping us develop this product.

Q. How do you intend to introduce the Indian consumer to this completely new category of vehicles?

It is a new category; nobody in India has seen anything like this. It is very important for customers to experience it first. Our target would be to let people experience this vehicle first. For that, we will partner with certain companies who can give this vehicle on a short-term lease for a day, a week or a month and try it. We plan to have a hybrid model where we will have a lot of data available online talking about the experience and a lot of experience centres where one can go and experience our vehicle and lease it for a short term. The user can try it for a few days and then decide to buy the vehicle. That would be the first go-to-market strategy.

We aim to take it to different geographies, one by one, as we intend to have a service centre within the city. We plan to launch in Bangalore and Pune and target ten more cities. Once sufficient vehicles are on the road and people start seeing them, they’ll understand the benefits of a small vehicle, and there will be an actual pull from the market.

Building a business

Q. How difficult is it to develop an automotive startup in a country where the automotive industry is so mature?

The challenges are multifold. Making a vehicle in a country like India is one of the toughest startup endeavours. Making it in the personal mobility category is even harder because of the expectations people have from an automotive product. The quality of features, finish and reliability provided by the prominent market players is extremely high. To match that is a challenge for any new player, but to make a mark, you must exceed that. We, too, have to meet these high expectations.

This is a very mature industry, and it is a very capital-intensive business. A services startup or a retail or aggregator kind of business would start generating revenue from day one, but an automotive startup’s gestation period is very long. One needs to plan at least ten years in the future.

It has a very long lead time, and you need people from the industry to help you get through because you need a lot of experience in automotive design. Making a vehicle first involves building the right team, which is a very big team. If you see any OEMs, their engineering teams will have 1000 or 2000 people. We had to do that job with a very small team and then create a product that would come after two or three years down the line and predict the market at that time. We have very senior people from companies like Tata, Maruti and Mahindra who are part of our team and are helping us create the actual body to do the engineering and testing.

I would say this is one of the hardest businesses to be in because of the nature and the required investment cycle. It’s a very high entry barrier industry. It’s very tough to make the right decisions unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

Q. Have you sought any funding for this capital-intensive business?

We have already completed an angel round. We will announce the details soon because we are just closing the paperwork. We are already talking to institutional investors. Till the Delhi Auto Expo, we were bootstrapped. Our previous company was the one which had invested in the initial development, but the whole development is not possible on the promoters’ money. So we are already in talks with some more investors.

Q. How big is your team?

We have a core team of  15 people now. At least 30 people worked on the prototype for the Delhi Auto Expo the last three months before the event. We had help from some very good design houses for engineering. We were working with Studio 34 from Delhi. Whenever required, we engage with these design houses and take their help for a short period on a project basis. Depending on the tasks, the team’s size grows and shrinks, but now we are in a phase of expansion because we are working on the technology development for two products. So we are hiring more and will increase our team size significantly over the next year.

Q. Could you elaborate more on your hiring trends?

At Vayve Mobility, our hiring trends reflect the diverse needs of an automotive startup. We seek individuals at different stages of their careers, including freshers who are eager to learn, experienced professionals skilled in drafting and CAD design, and senior experts who possess a deep understanding of vehicle architecture. Our hiring occurs across various verticals, such as mechanical and electronic design, marketing, sales channel development, and strategy. We envision significant growth in our team, expanding from a small technical team to a 30-35 person team within one year. This growth will span multiple skill sets and seniority levels, ensuring a well-rounded workforce.

Q. Do you engage with academia for internships and hiring?

While we have not engaged with academia for internships and hiring, we are currently discussing with prestigious institutions like IIT Bombay and NID to explore these opportunities, particularly for our design team. We recognize the potential value of collaborating with academic institutions, as they often foster new ideas and fresh perspectives. As a result, we are actively pursuing these discussions and anticipate engaging with academia in the near future.

Q. Do you believe there is anything you could have done differently?

In the process of building Vayve Mobility and developing our products, every day is a learning experience. We embrace the concept of evolution, where things progress and improve over time. While we ensure our fundamental aspects are correct, our product continuously evolves. The version of Eva we presented at the Delhi Auto Expo was already the third iteration, and we anticipate at least two or three more iterations before the final product reaches the market. This iterative product development cycle aligns with my previous experience developing products in modern electronics. Building a great product necessitates innovation and achieving the right product-market fit.

Could I have done something better? Better is a very subjective thing. For instance, if I had focused solely on developing a battery management system (BMS) or a motor controller, I might have established a profitable business by now. Alternatively, venturing into electric two or three-wheelers could have resulted in a shorter product life cycle and a more advanced stage of development compared to where we currently stand with a passenger vehicle. However, it is essential to recognise that pursuing ambitious goals inherently carries risks.

We understand the scale of what we aim to achieve, and if we succeed, the returns will justify our investment.

Q. What is your next milestone?

Our immediate milestone is to complete the prototype of our commercial vehicle within the next two to three months. This is our highest priority at the moment. Simultaneously, we are also making refinements to Eva, our vehicle. Following the completion of the commercial vehicle prototype, we plan to make a soft launch. Our next target will be to finalize the engineering for both vehicles. These milestones mark significant progress in bringing our innovative electric mobility solutions to the market.


 

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