India's electric vehicle market is still at its infancy. There are numerous challenges : one of them being the obsolescence in the manufacturing outlooks of incumbent players (For a more in depth understanding, read the first article in this series, if you haven't.) As argued previously, Ather Energy seems to provide an unique solution to this problem by rethinking the vehicle integration process. Their intelligent electric scooters are designed to give a consumer the futuristic experience of riding an electric vehicle.

Before we delve deeper into what Ather does that really makes them stand out, let me formally introduce this tech intensive startup.

Ather Energy - a quick peek into their journey so far:

The journey of Ather began in October 2013 at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras Research Park. Tarun Mehta and co-founder Swapnil Jain, both IIT-M alumni (B.Tech & M.Tech batch of 2012 in engineering design), had set out to build India’s first smart electric scooter. The idea got its fuel from a research on swappable batteries model, on which they were working as a project in their final year of graduation course.

“When we started, we said that we will only build batteries for existing vehicles because there is no Lithium-ion battery (pack in the market). We will build it and sell them. We thought that batteries were the only thing wrong with electric vehicles,” says Swapnil Jain. But later realisation hit that “almost everything is wrong in existing electric vehicles. As a startup, we have to build something that’s redefining the segment”

For the founders Swapnil and Tarun, the thought of redefining electric vehicles led them to the invention of an intelligent scooter powered by IoT and sophisticated algorithms for data collection and battery pack management, that would enable people to navigate on the roads. Driving on roads can be tricky, with roads cratered with potholes, streets with no names, chronic traffic congestion, confusing city layouts, and free-for-all driving. Swapnil and Tarun had the vision to tackle such problems with an electric scooter that constantly evolves based on road-data, driving habits, and vehicle performance.

Ather Energy was born with a vision to solve the problem of energy storage and supply in an electric vehicle. It is building a futuristic electric scooter which aims to go head-to-head with the best e-scooters in the market. They believe that the vehicles of the future will be smart, connected and clean and they want to accelerate the adoption of these vehicles.

The Vertical Integration charm:

One of the co-founders, Tarun Mehta, pointed out in a video that the problem with the EV industry in India is that the entrenched players are following the horizontal model of vehicle integration, whereas any industry at its start usually goes forward with vertical integration.

Ather co-founder Tarun Mehta at IIM Ahmedabad

The Electric vehicle has several hardware and software components - battery cells, BMS (Battery Management System) and the electric motor - to name a few. Under the horizontal model of integration, the manufacturer gets the individual components from different vendors and then tasks themselves with just vehicular assembly. This poses a problem, as the vendors themselves do not have the specific elements that would be best suited for a particular electric vehicle(due to the industry’s relative low age) and end up selling the substandard for an absurd price. This keeps the initial acquisition cost very high and the product does not achieve reasonable market prices.

Ather Energy tackled this problem just like Apple does - they integrated their production vertically. Unlike other electric vehicle companies, the company itself owns and controls its process, the suppliers, distributions, the whole supply chain. They brought all of the technology in house and built everything from scratch (apart from the very basic ingredients - like the Li ion battery cell, which has to be imported) and in the process, reduced initial acquisition cost, created better prototypes and products, and also allowed themselves to bring unorthodox features to their product - for example: a Battery Management System (AKA the brain of the vehicle) built entirely by the people at Ather, that helps monitor all the cells, voltage, current, load, and temperature. It helps track the performance of the battery pack on a daily basis, and it has inbuilt algorithms that learn continuously about the usage and performance of its battery packs.

The software of the BMS can be modified to improve battery life and efficiency by algorithms that learn from one’s driving style and battery usage trends. Other examples include building their own chassis, suspensions, lithium-ion battery packs, battery management systems and bodywork themselves, and self-reliance for collecting several real-time data types on the scooters - throttle, RPM, brake, horn, accelerations, orientations, and location.

The vertical integration model isn’t just an optimal choice for building a better electric vehicle, it is also an integral part of Ather’s vision and dedication towards building a startup based on rigorous engineering and innovation. This vision doesn’t restrict itself into just supply chain management, but also makes itself apparent in Ather’s other structural changes - one of them being their ‘Design Space’ approach to Vehicle Development.

The Vehicle Development Process that Ather changed:

Typical processes of any vehicle development start with materialistic thoughts to form sketches, drawings, renderings and write-ups which form the foundation for the development of the product. Then the development process is distributed among different engineering teams. On the mechanical side, the design team and CAE team work in conjunction. The work starts with creating a basic CAD (Computer Aided Design) of the vehicle which is then analysed by the CAE (Computer Aided Engineering) team.  After the feedback given by the CAE team, the part returns to the design team. This loop goes on until a satisfactory result is produced that fits into all the parameters.

Ather energy was not ready to continue this legacy approach. They observed some flaws in  this, such as:

  1. The number of iterations is huge and the time taken for a final design is considerably high
  2. There is no direct correlation of the design and simulation i.e., the design engineer has little understanding of the simulation and what are the parameters on which the part is being tested.

They believe that the standard vehicle development timelines require a tighter interaction between the design and analysis team. They believe it is important that broader decisions like “what does the product stand for?” and “how it will feel, look and behave?” are made known to the entire team. Whether it be the mechanical team or the android developer, the designer or the power electronics team - it’s ensured that every team member imbibes these ideas, so that every component will follow a common theme leading to a naturally focused product development.

Instead of performing several iterations between design and simulation departments, unlike the typical process of vehicle designing, at Ather, they start with engineering constraints on the first step and then build a ‘Design Space’. As they describe it, a design space is a collection of engineering and manufacturing constraints which define hard points or constraints for the product and its bulk.

‘Topology optimization’, a mathematical method, is then performed on this design space which gives an approximate design. It optimizes material layout within a given design space, for a given set of loads, boundary conditions and constraints with the goal of maximizing the performance of the system. The program here analyses a component by its physical parameters and by keeping the constraints at the back end finds the places where the material is required and trims all the excess material, thus giving the most optimized part that can be designed within the constrained design space. This is then given to the design team which works on refining the rough layout into something closer to the final product’s required aesthetics and weight targets.

The introduction of this new approach to design has led to the more involved and interconnected design process where the design engineer and simulation engineer bridge the gap of understanding the product in all aspects be it aesthetics, packaging, light-weighting, durability.

Case in point: Ather’s in house BMS and Battery pack

Designing their own battery packs with new modifications is one of Ather Energy's defining characteristics. Battery packs are responsible for keeping the cell in safe operating conditions. Li-ion cells, the current choice for powering an electric vehicle, have a high energy density that can deliver a high amount of power from a small structure.  Also with minor alterations in the electrode makeup, it can be made to deliver exceptionally high power densities. Despite its overall advantages, lithium-ion has its drawbacks. It is fragile and requires a protection circuit to maintain safe operation. There is a safe operating area recommended for any lithium-ion cell; this is usually the temperature range, voltage, and maximum charge/discharge current. Taken outside these limits, the cell can become unstable.

A Lithium ion battery pack
A Lithium ion battery pack

To get maximum output from the Li-ion batteries, it is necessary to minimize the degradation and increase the cycle life of the battery while getting the sufficient aggregate power required from a given number of batteries. This is where the Battery Management System(BMS) fits in and plays a very critical role in managing the battery pack and enabling it to work in optimum conditions. A Battery Management System (BMS) is an electronic system that manages a rechargeable battery, by protecting the battery from operating outside its safe operating area, monitoring its state, calculating secondary data, reporting that data, controlling its environment, authenticating it and balancing it.

Designing an in-house BMS not only puts the limitations on the drawbacks of Li-ion batteries but also offers more options. To extend the battery life without compromising on performance, at Ather they built an arsenal of 500+ cell cyclers housed in chambers set at different temperatures, and rigorously tested cells under a gamut of conditions.

The know-how gained from internal cell tests led to the development of an intelligent BMS in the form of a bunch of algorithms. Multiple thermal sensors integrated with the Ather’s BMS enables the rider to get extensive heat data inside. Above all, the bigger advantage is that it aids in identifying and integrating individual components. This makes features like Over the Air updates possible. The board also includes a separate controller for data analysis and sharing them with the dashboard and cloud. The main functions of Ather’s BMS includes controlling power modulation and charge optimization algorithms to ensure that the battery operates within the optimal voltage and temperature levels with minimum impact on charging time and efficiency. The BMS processes information from a multitude of sensors on-board to estimate and keep track of the battery’s health.

Cell Cyclers at Ather’s Cell Testing Facility
Cell Cyclers at Ather’s Cell Testing Facility

The in house BMS is just one of the many examples of Ather rethinking the electric scooter. There are several more:

Real-Time Data Gathering with MESSI

Making Every Scooter Smart and Intelligent (MESSI) was developed to gather more data than what they gather from prototypes and testing teams. MESSI can be plugged and used comfortably with almost all types of existing scooters. With MESSI, essentially a Data Acquisition System, Several data types on the scooters are collected- Throttle, RPM, brake, horn, accelerations, orientations, and location. MESSI is now capable of collecting additional data — on temperature, weather conditions, riding with a pillion, and brake pressure. Also, a GSM connection allows real-time data monitoring for a quick and accurate analysis. The drive cycle data that are gathered from MESSI is valuable: it gives insights into how people actually use their vehicles on the road. MESSI helps to make decisions based on real data acquired in real driving conditions.

Versions 1 and 2 of MESSI
Versions 1 and 2 of MESSI

A Smart Dashboard

The Ather scooters contain a 7-inch smart display at the front which provides the rider facilities of on-screen navigation and integrates the cloud-based data that helps to personalize the consumer ride experience. This intuitive dashboard in front is equipped with 1.3 GHz Snapdragon Processor, Bluetooth connectivity and Google Maps.

The Smart Dashboard
The Smart Dashboard

With in-built maps, Ather removed the hassle of stopping over and checking mobile phones. It also consists of a navigation module which allows the users to opt for preset routes and plan the journey according to their wish. The maps also show nearby charging points and alternative routes for dodging traffic. Ather also built their own user interface(UI) on the top of an embedded platform which provides very clear and direct communication between the rider and the vehicle.  The software engineers at Ather claim it to be a very different architecture than a typical mobile or web app because it directly interacts with the vehicle and changes things like ride mode and peripherals. Every single piece of peripheral on the vehicle is controlled by software — light, horn, key, speakers. It’s what powers an auto to turn off  the indicators.

The telematics hub makes all the communications from and to the vehicle possible. This ensures that the vehicle is constantly connected to the Ather server and monitored by it. Constantly communicating vehicle data like speed, riding mode, temperature, braking and other parameters with the server help to analyze and improve the ride experience with over-the-air updates. The hub also enables host features like communicating alerts on low pressure in tires, low charge, unexpected overheating, overexposure to sunlight and much more. There are 46 sensors on the vehicle — each of these sensors talks to the cloud to provide the rider with real-time information. With a focus on end-to-end customer experience and building smart transportation for the future, Ather embraces the cloud to accelerate the process of development, production, testing, and launch of their cloud-based connected scooters.

Ather Space and Ather Grid:

Ather has also set its own charging network at different locations across Bangalore and Chennai. These DC-fast-charging stations called Ather Grid use Ather's proprietary charging method and connector to charge the Ather scooters at a rate of 1 km/min. The Ather Grid business is stand-alone – structured as a different company. The charging points are also equipped with a 3-pin socket to supply AC power to other electric vehicles that do not use Ather's connector.

An Ather Grid charging point
An Ather Grid charging point

Unlike most auto manufacturers in India, Ather Energy owns and operates its own Experience Centers. The company claims that this helps in maintaining the end-to-end customer experience. These Experience centers, dubbed as Ather Spaces, aim primarily at providing customers with the insights of the Ather bikes developed by them. The Ather Spaces are equipped with the facilities of customer supports that provide them with first-hand experiences and test drives. All the information and details related to the manufacturing of Ather bikes are delivered to their customers from their experience centers.

What does all this amount to?

As said previously, the USP of Ather Energy is not just in restructuring and fixing the vehicle development and supply chain management processes. Ather Energy has started out in making an entire ecosystem - with their cloud services, over-the-air updates, on the go charging infrastructure; that not only defines the product they’re selling, but also en-wraps the consumer in the fancies of an Electric Vehicle future, apart from personal economy and ecological benefits. And they’re doing this while sticking to their vision of creating a startup that hinges on the philosophy of arriving at the best product through rigorous engineering techniques carried out by solely themselves.

The rise of Ather Energy, along with a host of other startups in the Electric Vehicle Scenario in India is emblematic of an epochal shift in the automobile industry. This change is being driven by a thirst for innovation and well rounded engineering, and by the realization that the Electric Vehicle is a product like the smartphone which will redefine our lives, our perception of ourselves and our interactions with technology in a futuristic world.