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Can Ather’s smart electric scooter transform motorbikes in India?

tech Updated: Feb 26, 2016 10:56 IST
Sanshey Biswas
Sanshey Biswas
Hindustan Times
Ather

Running an electric scooter isn’t just cheap, but also convenient — especially as it starts up equally well in summers and winters. As for fuel, Ather Energy’s S340 can be juiced up from anywhere that your phone can be(Ather)

If an electric scooter and a petrol one were locked in a drag race, you’d think the conventional vehicle would be the crowd favourite, right?

Wrong. And there’s Ather Energy’s new S340 electric scooter to prove it. Just flip the switch and almost instantly, the scooter, though silent, whizzes into action, thanks to the instant torque and acceleration an electric motor can produce.

In the meanwhile, the petrol rider has to work their way up gears and wait for the engine to be warm enough to run on full capacity.

Running an electric scooter isn’t just cheap, but also convenient — especially as it starts up equally well in summers and winters. As for fuel, Ather Energy’s S340 can be juiced up from anywhere that your phone can be.

It does, however, charge faster on bigger sockets with more voltage.

Tarun Mehta, CEO and C-Founder of Ather (right) along with Swapnil Jain, CTO and Co-Founder (Left) (Ather)

If electric scooters are so much better, why aren’t they wildly popular? Well, that’s because potential is all they had.

As Tarun Mehta, co-founder of Ather energy told us, “ I rode several electric scooters to their grave. I’d ride them all the way to and from work.” When we asked him how he managed to do that, considering that they were slow and offered limited range? He said “It took some really good planning to pull off.”

They weren’t sturdy or practical. “The companies targeted the mass with the scooter but only enthusiasts has the patience because some amount of enthusiasm was necessary to deal with the average electric scooter. They barely lasted you the commute and won’t go beyond a certain speed. Which is why the vehicles took on initially, but faced in a phenomenal drop in sales of 85% within months.”

Everything about the S340 is charming.

From the design, performance to the tech that makes it possible. At the Ather office at Vitoria Road, Bengaluru, hangs a poster next to the reception with the caption “built for for us” and a mockup image of the S340. It was clear that the primary aim of building the S340 was to have a scooter that they’d want to ride and that’s why they didn’t settle for anything less than the ambitious targets they had set for themselves.

Like Tesla, Ather are building a vehicle for the early adopters. The enthusiasts who will be ready to invest in a new medium of commuting despite the skepticism which as set in our minds about electric scooters (Ather)

Something similar to Tesla Motors — one of the several companies that Ather draws inspiration from.

Like Tesla, they’re building a vehicle for the early adopters. The enthusiasts who will be ready to invest in a new medium of commuting despite the skepticism which as set in our minds about electric scooters.

Mehta tells us that S340 is robust, “It’s been put through the endurance tests at the tracks and even crashed sometimes.” So, we asked him if it was easy to fix up if it’s crashed or wrecked.

“We’ve always been able to restore a crashed S340,” he chuckles before contemplating, “Or at least from all the crashes I know about. Can’t really know if someone crashed it and didn’t tell me.” It pretty little scooter can carry 300 kilograms for 60 kilometres. And if you are a lighter, more conscious rider who doesn’t speed much and breaks less, the range gets a boost.

At the centre of the S340’s construct is the hybrid aluminium metal frame that holds everything together while making it possible to make it lighter.

The battery pack has been designed to fit the needs of a high performance electric scooter that they wanted to “build for us [the Ather Energy team of two-wheeler enthusiasts]”.

The S340 is also practical though, since Mehta thinks the enthusiast shouldn’t have to make trade-offs and that is something Elon Musk’s Tesla has proven works — Tesla’s vehicles are expensive but they sell because they offer better performance and style than what is expected from an electric car.

The S340 takes a page out of their business model by making the scooter pricier than its petrol counterpart, but adding a battery that charges to 80% in an hour, last 50,000 kilometres, drives enough power to reach a top speed of 72 kmph in a scooter that’s also 20% lighter than its fuel competitors.

At the centre of the S340’s construct is the hybrid aluminium metal frame that holds everything together while making it possible to make it lighter (Ather)

But that’s not where the S340’s commitment to you ends, it also wants to be your companion, making sure you are troubled even less by maintenance, navigation and time management on the dashboard.

This electric scooter is smart and by smart, we don’t mean bluetooth connectivity and music playback features.

It learns from your riding habits, adapting on-the-go. The dashboard has a digital speedometer, user profiles of every rider besides the utility features like navigation and battery health. It’s essentially a touchscreen Linux tablet (similar to Android) that connects to 3G by a SIM card and even lets you know if someone’s trying to steal it. It calculates the fastest and most convenient route according to your riding habits — recorded and verified over time. The dashboard is waterproof like the scooter (IP67 rating keeps it functional even in meter deep water) so that you can take a ride in the rain and work it with gloves.

The scooter manages to stay appealing on looks and features by virtue of being designed and built in-house. Swapnil Jain, also the cofounder of Ather Energy, told *HT, “*We have completely designed and built the scooter in-house. As a result, we have have over 40 design registrations.” Mehta believes that not only will this custom build make the scooter unique, it will also help in vertical integration — make building the next generations of Ather Energy’s scooter much easier and efficient.

“Everything from the Li-ion Battery Pack to the side-stand has been specially designed for the scooter, besides the battery management system that makes charging faster possible without creating much heat,” added Mehta.

With all its unique features, Ather Energy’s S340 hopes to gather popularity among electric vehicle enthusiasts unlike other scooters that target the majority. It will go into production by the end of 2016 at the new factory in Bengaluru and targeting an output of up to 50 vehicles a day.

With all its unique features, Ather Energy’s S340 hopes to gather popularity among electric vehicle enthusiasts unlike other scooters that target the majority (Ather)

Mehta is confident that their combined funding of Rs 81 crore from Tiger global and the Flipkart co-founders will be enough to get them to that point, which means that don’t feel the need to look for more till early next year.

One concern that could plague the company is its reliance on the electronics of the device. Also, since its connected to the internet via a 3G SIM card, its chances of getting hacked and your privacy being violated becomes a bigger concern.

As for the privacy concerns, all that could be picked up is your location and regular pitstops — which you can opt out of. With regards to the vital functions like acceleration and breaking, the network that controls them is separate from the one that is connected to the internet. Thus, hacking them would be *nearly *impossible.

Jain said, “Unlike Tesla’s charging station that’s the size of a fridge — because it requires 35 kilowatts to charge — S340 requires just 2 kilowatts of power, allows the charging system to be integrated on the scooter.”

“Such efficient design leaves out a lot of free space for an under hundred kilogram scooter, leaving enough space for storing up to two helmets,” adds Mehta.

The appeal of the scooter extents to the environment conscious by being completely electric. But it all boils down to how much carbon footprint the bike has in regular usage because thermal plants are still the major source of electricity in the country. Mehta says that they’ll publish a whitepaper with the details soon which points out that, “over a period of five years, the Ather Energy S340 will produce 30-40% lesser carbon footprint than a 110cc petrol scooter like Honda’s Activa.”

The appeal of the scooter extents to the environment conscious by being completely electric. They are already in talks with societies and offices to set up charging stations across the city of Bengaluru (Ather)

Ather Energy has got big plans for the scooter.

They want the experience to be as good as the specs sheet and looks. They are already in talks with societies and offices to set up charging stations across the city of Bengaluru. Mehta assured that, “buyers of the electric scooter will get a charging station installed at their home by the company. The goal is to make sure that at least one charging station is available within five kilometres no matter where you are in the city at launch and eventually bring that distance down to 2 kilometres by the time.”

We got our first look at the S340 at the SURGE conference in Bengaluru on Tuesday where they announced their plans to start production by the end of 2016.

It all sounds too good to be true and to an extent, that’s true.

Getting our hands on an Ather Energy S340 isn’t going to be as easy as picking up a scooter from mass manufacturers like Honda or Hero. They’ll sell their bike only on their website, Atherenergy.com, which includes a bit of screening because getting the production as Mehta told us will be incremental — gauging the demand and their ability to handle the after sales services.

The first experience zone will open in Bengaluru (before reaching Pune and Chennai eventually) in about three months where test rides will be offered and the price will be announced. These experience centres will be opened in all the cities that Ather Energy launches their S340 scooter in. Also, the delivery and servicing will be at the doorstep. The production is expected to begin at the end of this year in their factory in Bengaluru at 50 scooters per day with each costing under Rs 1 lakh.