"Every innovation starts in a garage," declares S.B. 'Ravi' Pandit, chairman and group CEO of KPIT Cummins Infosystems Ltd. Garages are certainly involved in the development story of his company's innovation, which also happens to be a departure from software, its main area of expertise.
When the idea of Revolo first occurred to young KPIT engineer Tejas Kshatriya, he was actually stuck in Mumbai traffic en route to Pune, where the company is based. What started as a thought back in 2008 evolved through trial and error into a system that can be retro-fitted to any vehicle at an average cost of Rs 1 lakh.
The kit consists of a motor, batteries and a pulley that can be installed in a span of about six hours by mechanics who will be trained by a joint venture that KPIT has formed with parts maker Bharat Forge. Revolo is meant to work best in typical stop-and-go city traffic and allow cars to cruise at about 30 km an hour in third gear without straining the engine.
Revolo works on the same principles as other hybrids, capturing kinetic energy that would otherwise be wasted when the brakes are applied. The pulley that helps turn the crankshaft is situated in the underbelly of the car and is connected to a motor under the hood. Power is transferred to three lead acid batteries in the boot that store the energy for later use.
Conventional hybrids have had a mixed reception in India. Honda's Civic hybrids didn't have too many takers at double the regular price. Currently, Toyota offers the Prius hybrid at a price of Rs 33.7 lakh in Mumbai.
"Revolo will be for the masses and is the first wave towards cheaper hybridisation," says Pandit.
Revolo is now undergoing road tests at the Automotive Research Association of India (Arai) in Pune and the news thus far is encouraging, he says. Fuel efficiency improves by 60 per cent, while emissions are reduced by 35 per cent, according to Arai tests cited by Pandit.
The Revolo kit for a Maruti 800 or its equivalent will be available at Rs 65,000 to Rs 70,000, Pandit says. For a 3-litre vehicle such as a Tata 207 light truck the kit will cost about Rs 1.5 lakh.
Revolo's development cost less than $2 million, Pandit says, less than the $1 billion average development cost of a new car. The kit pays for itself in two years, at an average daily run of 50 kilometres, Pandit says.
The company has so far filed for 11 patents, a majority of the applications authored by Kshatriya.
KPIT's founders Pandit and Kishor Patil were both chartered accountants with the Pune-based accountancy firm Kirtane Pandit and Associates before they ventured into information technology. KPIT was built as a niche IT firm with expertise in the automobile sector and ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions. One of its start-up investors was billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, who has since exited with a handsome return on his money but maintains ties with the two promoters, according to Patil.
While as excited by innovation as any entrepreneur, Pandit and Patil also bring a keen auditor's eye to business. So, will Revolo make money?
"We expect revenues to be between Rs 300 crore to Rs 500 crore next year, which would translate into selling between 30,000 to 50,000 kits in the next year, assuming an average price of Rs 1 lakh per kit," Pandit says.
Commercial production of the Revolo kit is expected to start in the next six months at KPIT's 50:50 joint venture with Bharat Forge near Pune.
Revolo is being offered first to the after market, which comprises 90 per cent of the car population, rather than being pitched directly to automakers.
The key is to show customers they can save money, says Chetan Maini, Mahindra Reva's chief of technology and strategy, who introduced disruptive technology in the Indian automotive market. Maini's Reva, which was taken over by Mahindra & Mahindra in May this year, began selling electric cars in India in 2001.
"The capital expenditure costs need to be kept low and the benefits need to be shown early. A lot depends on how successfully the company can do this right at the start," Maini says.
So how has KPIT been able to keep costs low? A Revolo car doesn't use batteries to start the engine. It also uses traditional lead acid batteries, which are cheaper than the lithium ion cells that other hybrids use.
In most other hybrids, "when the car starts, it runs only on batteries. That's why they have larger bonnets as they need powerful batteries," Pandit says.
"In our case, the engine runs at all times and the battery power comes in selectively."
The device has battery management software devised by KPIT and employs the kind of cells used in home inverters, he says.
Is Revolo's technology comparable with that of other hybrid vehicles?
"I do not know the technical details of this product but every company has its own hybrid technology," Maini says.
Not everyone is sold on the innovation. Amit Kalyani, executive director at Bharat Forge, says his fellow board members from Germany were incredulous, especially at the low cost.
Among those who are convinced about the product and have signed up to get their cars kitted out with Revolo are Bharat Forge's independent directors S.D. Kulkarni, former CEO of Larsen & Toubro, and Lalita Gupte, former joint managing director of ICICI Bank, Kalyani says.
Kshatriya, the engineer behind the concept, is being kept under wraps by the company, which rebuffed requests for meetings and photographs. When he got the go-ahead for the project two years ago, Kshatriya used his own Maruti Alto to develop the idea.
A team of four engineers was sanctioned for the project.
After several false starts, including the inability of the system to withstand the sudden surge in power when the brakes were applied, things began to fall in place.
If Revolo succeeds, Kalyani says Bharat Forge could enter the area of electrical components. Kalyani, a self-confessed "car nut" like father Baba Kalyani, says he will fit Revolo kits in Bharat Forge's car fleet.
KPIT's frugal engineering methods have got the auto world's attention and the company has been fielding calls for sharing Revolo technology.
KPIT and Bharat Forge expect the government to chip in with some incentives, but Kalyani points out that no business proposition should be set up on the basis of government subsidies. “If it comes it will be a bonus," he says.
Maini believes hybrid and electric cars are the future for a country like India, which imports most of its fuel.
"The two biggest challenges for us are fuel shortage and climate change," he says. Given the poor efficiency levels of conventional engines, such alternative technologies will become more mainstream, he says.