From tuk-tuks to trucks: A smart new way to power electric vehicles

India’s SUN Mobility develops cloud-connected swappable batteries to put us on the road to the future

Umesh Yadav starts up his three-wheeler at 7 a.m. and hits the road looking for fare-paying passengers.

He’s one of millions of drivers in India who operate autorickshaws, known across much of Asia as tuk-tuks after the loud spluttering noise a two-stroke engine makes as it coughs out a trail of choking blue smoke.

But Yadav’s machine is different–it’s electric, quiet, and clean. There are no fumes and no cacophony when it trundles through crowded streets of Gurugram, an urban conglomeration just south of India’s capital, New Delhi, that’s been ranked as the world’s most polluted city.

Yadav is part of a small, but growing, band of electric tuk-tuk drivers here who use a surprisingly convenient subscription service for swappable batteries that could change how we regard the practicality of electric vehicles (EVs). With the help of data and cloud computing, it is tackling long-held reservations about recharging times and range limits.

When his autorickshaw runs low on charge, Yadav simply stops at one of several battery swapping stations in the city, which are like vending machines for fresh batteries. He taps his NFC key fob to open a compartment in the vending machine and swaps his depleted battery, which is slightly bigger than a shoe box and weighs around 13 kilograms (approximately 28.6 lbs), with a freshly juiced one. He pays for only the energy he’s used, which is deducted from his electronic wallet that is also stored in the key fob.

A few minutes later, he’s back driving and looking for fares. It’s just like changing a battery in a camera or other devices.

“I’m able to run for much longer during the day without having to stop for a few hours to charge my autorickshaw. I’m enjoying it a lot,” the 29-year-old says.

Bengaluru-based startup SUN Mobility developed this solution after its founder Chetan Maini had a Eureka moment while doing a DIY chore.

“I was working around the house and ran out of juice on the power drill. I did what I had done several times before: swapped the battery and went back to work,” recalls SUN Mobility’s founder. “It gave me an idea of the way ahead. Why can’t people swap batteries for their EVs?”

Maini thinks swappable batteries will revolutionize the EV sector and urban life generally. He says that before long, electric bikes and autorickshaws like Yadav’s will be sustainably zipping around cities around the world, ferrying around people and goods.

The reality for EVs right now, however, is very different.

The growth and popularity of electric mobility has been sluggish, largely due to the lack of public-charging infrastructure, where drivers plug in their vehicles and wait for hours for them to charge.

MarketWatch report found there are just about 250 public charging stations operating in India and just 156,000 EVs were sold in the country in 2019-20–a miniscule fraction of the 231 million vehicles sold in that that period.

It’s much the same everywhere in the world. Maini says anxiety over how far a vehicle can run on a single charge and time required to recharge a battery stops many drivers from going electric.

Ask anyone–from Sydney to San Francisco–and chances are you will hear the same arguments, he laments.

Chetan Maini is no stranger to EVs. In 1996, he founded the Reva Electric Car Company. He launched Reva, an affordable, compact and India’s first electric car, named after his mother. The car was sold in 24 countries. While it fell short of becoming a mainstream form of personal transport, it is now regarded as one of the forerunners for today’s EV revolution.

In his current role, Maini has taken a drastically different approach to powering EVs by applying the idea of shared economy to the battery ecosystem. He’s come up with a pay-as-you-go battery as a service system that is run on a digital platform built on the Microsoft Cloud.

You subscribe to a battery subscription service rather than own just one battery for your EV. You pay to swap batteries in much the same way as you pay to refuel a regular gasoline-powered vehicle at a filling station. Before your current battery loses power you simply stop off at a swapping station and put in a fresh one. This takes about the same time, if not quicker, than filling a vehicle’s tank. That means you don’t have to wait for hours before your EV hits full charge and you don’t have to change your refueling habits an awful lot.

Ultimately, the distance your EV can travel is no longer limited by the amount of charge in one battery. And because you don’t buy the battery upfront, the cost of an EV can come down nearly 50%, Maini says.

“If people are willing to rent homes and cars, I figured they’d be open to renting the battery too,” he says.

Unlike Reva, with SUN Mobility, Maini isn’t focusing on personal cars but rather on shared transportation. He believes this will have a bigger impact in the fight against climate change. “I realized that 85% of India travels on two-wheelers, in three-wheelers and in buses. That’s where most of our energy is used and a major source of pollution. So, to create a real impact on society, I would need to focus on that segment,” Maini says.

And at the heart of his vision is the battery.

The battery as a service system doesn’t just help its customers stay asset-light, since it retains the ownership of the battery, but also provides SUN Mobility to do more with its battery that makes its platform smarter as more people use it.

The batteries as well as the swap stations are connected to the Cloud using Microsoft Azure and numerous built-in solutions like Azure IoT Hub, Azure Data Factory, CosmosDB, Azure Databricks, among others, that transmit battery performance telemetrics back to SUN Mobility.

Customers also have the option of using an app, which connects with their EV’s battery and gives them real-time information of their battery’s performance and the nearest swap station in case the battery is running low.

“We have stations, batteries, and customers that are connected to us. There are over 150 data points coming into our system from each battery,” Maini explains.

With that data, SUN Mobility understands battery utilization, most frequented routes, and peak hours. Using AI and machine learning algorithms, it can predict the potential demand. It can not only optimize its existing network of battery swapping stations, but also plan the location and feasibility of future stations.

An unintended outcome of the battery performance data has enabled SUN Mobility to train EV owners to get more range out of their batteries by tweaking the way they drive.

“After some of our sessions, we’ve seen an improved energy behavior by 15% that can help owners of the vehicles increase their revenue too,” Maini says.

The platform it has been able to create as a result is at the heart of SUN Mobility’s business, which is why it doesn’t see itself as a transport company but rather as a technology company.

“We always knew that the future would be on data, cloud, and analytics, and we had to rethink of how we would look at a platform and we felt that Microsoft was the kind of company we wanted to work with. It was talking of sustainability, looking at data at scale, talking of making an impact, and was creating platforms. All of that resonated with our long-term vision,” Maini says.

“What we also liked was that Microsoft was also able to understand our architecture and help us articulate better how we could achieve our vision and connect that to its products. It also helped us understand things we could do in the future: how to think of IoT, security at chip level etc. Those visions were important.”

So far, SUN Mobility has inked over 10 OEM partnerships, that will enable automobile makers to use its battery tech. These include the likes of Piaggio Commercial, the Italian automobile manufacturer’s Indian arm that makes autorickshaws the kind that Yadav drives, and Ashok Leyland, India’s second largest manufacturer of large commercial vehicles like buses and trucks.

SUN Mobility currently has a network of 50 battery swapping stations spread across 14 cities, with plans to ramp it up to 150 stations in 20 cities by March 2021. It has already partnered with Indian Oil Company, India’s largest oil and gas company, to deploy battery swap modules at their gas stations.

It has also partnered with over a dozen companies that own fleets, including SmartE, India’s largest EV fleet operator for last-mile connectivity in urban areas. SmartE’s e-rickshaws have already run over a million miles powered by SUN Mobility’s battery tech in the last one year alone. What used to be “park and charge” hubs near train stations in New Delhi for traditional e-rickshaws that needed to be plugged have now deployed SUN Mobility’s battery swap stations.

In doing all of this, SUN Mobility is attempting to make the most of its early mover’s advantage in a race that’s about to heat up in the coming years.

A recent KPMG-CII report projects that the EV penetration in India will be led by two- and three-wheelers with a penetration of 65 to 70% by 2030 among two- and three-wheelers and 25 to 40 percent among buses. The report also predicts that the growth will be fueled by vehicles meant for commercial rather than personal use.

SUN Mobility’s battery as a service model can have a big impact on public transportation vehicles, where every minute the vehicle is not on the road has revenue implications. And users are already seeing the gains.

For Yadav, who’d quit his low-paying job as an electrician a few years ago to drive an autorickshaw, switching from a regular electric autorickshaw to one that uses SUN Mobility’s battery five months ago has almost doubled his daily income from INR 1,000 (approximately USD 13) to INR 1,800 (approximately USD 25), even during the pandemic. He swaps the batteries twice or thrice a day and runs his autorickshaw till evening rush hours before returning home around 8 p.m.

It’s still early days, but the company is also making a foray into spaces beyond passenger transport vehicles by partnering with startups such as Howddy, India’s first all-electric delivery company, which is piloting three-wheeler delivery vehicles running on SUN Mobility’s battery platform. The startup, which offers last-mile delivery solutions for online shopping and food delivery companies, is finding that swappable battery tech is enabling its fleet to remain on the road all the time.

“A regular electric vehicle needs to be plugged in to charge for five to six hours every day. In doing this, we lose time and business. But  we don’t face that problem with SUN Mobility. It doesn’t matter what time of the day or night it is; you can simply go to a swapping station and swap the battery and you’re off again,” says Aashirwad Deshmukh, CEO, Howddy.

Since companies like Howddy and SmartE don’t own the battery of their fleet of electric vehicles, their total cost of ownership is lower compared to regular EVs that come with a fitted battery. The capacity to retain charge in a battery reduces over time, which translates into lower range for the automobile. Batteries typically need to be replaced after a few thousand charging cycles, which means a couple of years for commercial vehicles that do more trips as compared to personal cars.

SUN Mobility, on the other hand, plans to remove depleted batteries from its network and give them a second life in other use cases like electricity backup devices for cellular network towers or homes in remote areas. Its users, meanwhile, can continue to swap batteries without having to bother about the performance.

With SUN Mobility, Maini is building an energy platform for India that’s scalable globally. One that can be used in a variety of EV form-factors, from bikes, scooters, and three-wheelers to buses and trucks.

“There’s no difference between powering a scooter or a bus here in India versus in London, Paris, Tokyo, or San Francisco. The solution is global: it reduces your cost of ownership, upfront cost, and offers an opportunity to go electric quicker. And all of it will be on a single platform,” he says.

“Our goal is to go beyond the product. We can put our solutions in several global markets such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, countries in Africa and South America that use similar form factors. By putting out our solutions, we can have a host of OEMs on our platform no matter their country of origin.”

And all of this is possible due to the robust platform on which plans of global revolution can be built.

“By thinking beyond software solutions, Microsoft too has been helping us realize that there were other pieces of the puzzle that needed to be cracked. It helped us understand what was possible,” says Maini.

“Earlier it (the partnership with Microsoft) was just to get a strong platform that could host, in the future, say a million devices on board that stay reliably connected. But now we’re looking at enhanced security, working to see if there are platform plays around fleet and energy managements, trying to understand how to integrate financing in the future because we have data on how vehicles are driven and usage patterns.”

Abhishek Mande Bhot is an independent writer and editor covering news, lifestyle, and luxury for publications in India and the US.