But Narayan Subramaniam had other ideas. He founded Ultraviolette in 2016 in Bengaluru with Niraj Rajmohan to make an electric bike that could outshine petrol bikes powered by engines upwards of 150cc.
And one winter’s morning this January, if you were cruising up the road to Nandi Hills, you would have done a double-take when a snazzy electric bike overtook you. That was the Ultraviolette F77 out on a test ride with Subramaniam in the saddle, along with a pillion rider and two loaded saddlebags.
“The most extreme usage requirement in India is if you are going uphill and there’s excess weight on the bike. We were fine-tuning parameters and validating some of our data on that,” says Subramaniam. “We also tested our regenerative braking system coming downhill.”
Normally, the kinetic energy from the friction of braking would be dissipated as heat, but a regenerative system converts it into chemical energy, recharging the bike’s battery. Other tests are under way on the crowded roads in Bengaluru for manoeuvrability, dirt tracks on the outskirts for rough rides and even a Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd airstrip for high-speed performance. It’s the final countdown as the F77 reaches production form ahead of its launch later this year. And there are a host of things to figure out that are peculiar to the emerging era of electric and connected vehicles.
“When we want to test out our communication, we take the bike into basement parking lots or an underpass to see if data is still being transmitted,” says Subramaniam. Among other things, data is used for onboard diagnostics, enabling preventive maintenance, which is a key value proposition for electric vehicles (EVs).
“Down to like a tenth of a unit of electricity, we know how much energy has gone from the battery pack to the vehicle’s electronic systems and from there to the motor and wheel. That is the level of data we have. So, even if it’s a simple thing like a bearing that’s wearing out, you will see a degradation in efficiency from the motor controller to the wheel. That is how we are able to predict that something may go wrong and you can then schedule a service to fix it before a problem surfaces,” explains Rajmohan.
This is a proactive approach compared to the usual practice of taking a vehicle to a service station when there is a problem or trying to figure out if anything’s wrong during a routine servicing. The bells and whistles of tech can provide other digital services too, such as optimizing battery charging and usage.
“Rather than you buying a vehicle and adapting your behaviour to that vehicle, the vehicle can adapt its behaviour to you,” says Rajmohan. “For example, depending on whether the rider is aggressive or tends to drive slowly and carefully, we can optimize the motor controller to be more efficient in certain zones of RPM (revolutions per minute) or acceleration.”
It’s a potential paradigm shift for the after-sales business model too, as digital services become a value-add, instead of the current one for petrol and diesel vehicles that is geared largely around replacement of parts. In fact, the number of parts in an EV is a small fraction of what goes into vehicles using internal combustion (IC) engines. This, in turn, lowers the capital expenditure requirement for starting up a company to manufacture electric bikes. Hence, the emergence of startups like Ultraviolette.
Even then, it was a challenge for Subramaniam and Rajmohan to raise funds for Ultraviolette, which they initially bootstrapped through its early development phase. Investors in India are far keener to back asset-light software plays than a hardware venture. But once Ultraviolette had prototypes to demonstrate its value proposition, investors including automotive firm TVS Motor Company Ltd took bets on it.
The Ultraviolette founders first focused on the battery system, which accounts for nearly half the cost of an EV. It’s the fall in prices of lithium-ion battery prices in the past decade that attracted entrepreneurs to this space, but it still holds huge potential for innovation.
Ultraviolette, like other EV makers, imports its battery cells from the likes of Samsung. But there’s a lot more to the battery pack than the cells, and that’s where the Indian startup has been developing its intellectual property. “There are fundamental problems within the battery system that haven’t been solved by anyone globally, not even Tesla,” says Subramaniam.
For example, dissipating heat from the energy dense battery cells is vital to slow their degradation and increase life. There are different ways of doing that. Some of them involve expensive materials, such as in the battery packs that Nasa puts into spacecraft, but that cannot work on a commercial scale for the automotive industry. It, therefore, opens up an area of innovation.
“We have built intellectual property on dissipating heat from the cells using commodity materials available in India,” says Subramaniam. This has to be done for hundreds of cells in a battery pack in such a way that the cooling is even across all of them. That is, the ones at the core should have similar temperature to those on the periphery that tend to dissipate heat faster.
There’s also a design innovation in combining a set of three batteries, each of which can be taken out and charged separately. Other areas of innovation centre on connectivity and data collection. All this requires a multi-disciplinary approach which began with the founders themselves.
With a master’s degree in automotive design from Sweden, Subramaniam worked at Mahindra, Daihatsu and Volkswagen, where he focused on concept vehicles. Rajmohan, on the other hand, brings expertise in electronic systems, having worked as a senior systems engineer at Yahoo! and then a product manager in NetApp’s advanced technology group.
They have known each other for over two decades, having gone to the same school and engineering college. In college, they started collaborating on creative engineering problems, winning competitions with robots and model vehicles of all kinds.
Now, they are on the cusp of seeing their high-powered electric motorcycle hit the roads in Bengaluru. With a price tag expected to be over ₹3 lakh, it’s for the aspirational buyer rather than the utility and budget bike segments that most electric bike makers have targeted in India.
The sports bike segment has been growing in India as well as the US and Europe, Subramaniam points out. That may give the startup ample scope to realize its ambition to change the perception of electric bikes as being pedestrian compared to powerful petrol bikes. As for starting with the premium segment, it’s a playbook borrowed from the master of this universe—Tesla.
Malavika Velayanikal is a Consulting Editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu