Prabhjot Kaur, Founder of CBEEV & Esmito Talks about Smart Charging Solutions that can help Lower the Cost of EV Manufacturing in India

Prabhjot Kaur, Founder of CBEEV & Esmito Talks about Smart Charging Solutions that can help Lower the Cost of EV Manufacturing in India

Interview

ByRajni Setia 0

Prabhjot Kaur, Co-founder and CEO of C-BEEV

One of the major obstacles in Electric Vehicle adoption in India is its high cost and the lack of necessary infrastructure. Compared to the ICEs, the EVs are approximately 4 times more expensive which is one of the reasons why EVs are less preferred by average Indian consumers. Besides,  development cost and poor raw material supply chain; the high upfront costs of EVs can be directly attributed to high battery costs. To be precise, the cost of a battery inside an Electric Vehicle accounts for 40–50% of the total manufacturing cost of an EV. 

Seeing the prospects of EVs in India and to help lower down the battery cost, Dr. Prabhjot Kaur joined CBEEV which is an R&D organization focusing on designing and developing the products which are required for EVs. Along with this, she started another company named Esmito. The company is working towards offering e-Mobility solutions like BMS, batteries, chargers with charging and swapping management, battery performance analytics, EV operations management, etc. thereby contributing towards lowering down the battery cost. 

To know about why batteries are posing hurdles in the way of electric vehicles to run on roads here in the country and the possible solutions, we talked to Dr. Prabhjot Kaur who is the founder of CBEEV & Esmito. Read the entire conversation here.

Q. Tell us about ‘Centre for Battery Engineering and Electric Vehicles, (CBEEV)’ how is it boosting the adaption of Electric Vehicles in India?

The Centre for Battery Engineering and Electric Vehicles (CBEEV) was formed almost four years back. While we were looking at the issues that India has in the adoption of electric vehicles, we got to know that the whole shift from ICE vehicles to EVs requires a lot of indigenization of the components. Four years back, we hardly found any firm that had those components, be it batteries, motors, motor controllers, or even charges; everything that people were trying to formulate or assemble in the country was getting imported from China. That's about 100% of the components if we talk about whatever was available commercially. So, when we started to look at what are the challenges, these were largely revolving around Electricals and Electronics, and that's where we thought that who else if not IIT that would take a lead in solving this issue, and coming up with solutions that we can provide to our market.

We started to work on the Lithium-ion batteries and saw that in these batteries; it is largely the BMS that plays a vital role, which becomes the brain and soul of a battery; the rest of the components like the cells are not getting produced in the country as of today. Also, it may take almost another couple of years before we have commercial productions happening in the country. For the other components like motors, it's not that we didn't have it, but we did not work even though we knew that the electric vehicles were coming. Probably, we should have started almost about one and a half decades back. But we didn't. That is not something that we cannot do. So, that's where we started.

We started to develop all of these systems. The intent was less on the innovations, but more on the products. This was not the fundamental R&D that we were trying to do. This was more to target the commercialization of the products helping India in the adoption of these systems. To ensure that these systems could be aligned together, and come up with an electric vehicle or these components, and as soon as possible the manufacturing could start in the country. That's what we started to do as in whatever components we were coming up with, we started to license it to the industries and did some technology transfers and were looking forward that it gets adopted as soon as possible.

Q. Apart from CBEEV, you're also the founder of the company Esmito. What led you to enter into Esmito and what kind of solutions and services does the company offer?

Since commercialization was taking place, and it was the beginning of the electric vehicle era, I thought that it was a very good time to move into this market because it's a very apt market for startups. As a startup and with this kind of motivation that I had to do something commercially in the country. That's where I took up some of the solutions and formed this company, Esmito.

Esmito is a vertical integrated company for providing energy as a service solution. These solutions move around the battery swapping, providing the SaaS solutions, swap stations, batteries, BMS, etc. So, we do the intelligence in the battery and the swap stations and bring them all together into a unified platform which is a kind of offered to the clients as a SaaS solution.

Q. You have been looking into the EV industry for quite some time and what is your outlook on this industry? What type of growth have you observed over these years and what are the key challenges that India is facing in this particular industry?

There are many challenges! Our vehicle makes us very different from the countries where adoption of electric vehicles has already happened and compared to the countries like the US, or Norway or China where there are lots of electric vehicles already, their vehicles have been largely the four-wheelers, especially on the western side of the world. If we look at our vehicle mix, 80 - 85% of vehicles are two-wheelers or three-wheelers. Largely, what has been the trend in these countries is what we try to adopt! Since these technologies were not readily available, we did not focus on creating ourselves and converting ICE vehicles into EVs in the two-wheeler segment. So, I think that is where India's focus has to be, if we want to talk about moving towards electrification of devices, that is on the two-wheelers and three-wheelers, which is the biggest chunk of the whole mix in the vehicles. So, I think that is one part of it, where we need to focus on the subsystems that have to come from India, where it was not so far available.

Electric Vehicle Industry

Certainly, the mindsets of people play a very important role, where the awareness in our country was not there initially. I think that now; youngsters especially have started to talk about electric vehicles, because of many reasons and also because the variants have started to come up and people are launching or talking about electric vehicles, which is a very good sign. This is one of the changes that has happened over the last couple of years. We have a few variants, new launches being announced every now and then. That is a positive change. If we talk about the challenge, then the biggest challenge that we have right now in the country is components availability which still is a bigger threat.

Among the challenges, one is the components availability and the need for indigenization, second is the focus on the right vehicle mix where we need to target and the kind of affordability that we have in the country. The major focus cannot be on the production of the luxurious car or luxurious segment, it is largely the affordability-driven market that we need to focus on, and third, certainly on the awareness part of it.

Q. Can you elaborate a bit more on the availability of the components? When it comes to manufacturing in bulk, what exactly is the component availability problem in India?

I would split this problem into two parts, one that we did not have the right solution some time back. Whatever was required was not developed in the country. We did not have the battery management system, chargers, vehicle control units i.e. electronic control units for the vehicles without which we could not have our electric vehicle. Also, the motors and the motor drivers, the power train becomes very important. The whole of the combination and even the individual parts did not exist. This is one part of it that was not developed, designed, or developed in the country.

The second part is commercialization, which is again a challenge because if you're getting something from China, for let's say at 1000 bucks, but in India because of the lack of the volumes, the production cost becomes higher. As a manufacturer, if I'm getting something from China or elsewhere at 1000 Rupees, I would prefer to buy that versus what I'm getting for 2000 Rupees in India because that increases my cost. That is one of the problems, but then I would say that it’s a kind of chicken and egg problem. If we don't get volumes, we don't get lower rates or if we don't get it at lower rates; we do not get volumes for the production houses.

Q. As an EV solution provider, how are CBEEV and Esmito solving these challenges?

CBEEV is a purely R&D organization very much focused on designing and developing the products which are required for the EVs. We work on two-wheelers, three-wheelers, and four-wheelers, the important parts that need to be designed as per the requirement like what is a power drill that needs to be delivered. Based upon their respective needs, we do the designing part. CBEEV is a design house that works on the requirements, consults companies, develops products, and does the ToT for the companies to commercialize. If we talk about Esmito, it is a commercial organization very much like any other private limited company, which provides the solutions on a commercial basis. So, that is the difference.

Q. Tell us about the Battery Swapping Trials conducted in IIT-M. What are the targeted results for these trials?

The purpose of Battery Swapping trials was to see how to bring down the total cost of ownership, TC of the electric vehicles for the consumers. If we look at the cost of electric vehicles, it is much higher compared to their counter-ICE vehicles. The two-wheelers or three-wheelers or even the cars; their equivalent electric vehicles are costlier. The reason is that in these vehicles, we are using fuel, which is batteries, in this case. In other automobiles, which are driven on petrol or diesel, we do not buy petrol and diesel for the life of the vehicle; we take it as when required. But in EVs, it becomes kind of mandatory that we are buying the whole fuel of its life during its purchase because these are batteries. They go and fit into the vehicle. We thought why not segregate this by treating batteries like fuel and to be filled on demand.

Battery Swapping Trials in IIT-M

As soon as we take out the batteries, the cost of the EVs comes down to about 30% - 40%. If we take out the batteries, electric vehicles become very affordable for consumers. Whenever we require fuel, we can go to the fuel station; in this case, it's a battery service provider or a battery swap station, where whenever we see that fuel is going down, we go to a service provider and say that you take my discharge battery, give me a charged battery, so that I can run my vehicle for another 100 kilometers or so or whatever is the range defined. That was the intention with which we started battery swapping.

Now, this had several concerns, and this as a concept was very new when we started to work on it about four years back. Seeing that how would we ensure that the battery is not stolen! Fuel is like petrol and diesel is like you fill it you consume it, you forget it because it's all gone whereas, in the batteries, it's an asset that an operator would create. So, he would want his asset to be a kind of secure that if somebody is taking in, then I should be able to track that battery, I should be able to figure out what the person does. What do I do if the consumer doesn't come back to me to return the battery or to refill the battery? There were many engineering solutions that we had put into the battery, a lot of intelligence that was put into the battery; to make it always trackable, monitorable, and see that how do we optimize the performance of the battery. This means that how do I get maximum life of the battery because as an operator, I have invested all the money into taking this asset. So, the whole of this solution was very new. There were a lot of innovations, many new concepts that were thought through and put and packaged into these batteries into the vehicles and charges. This needed verification. We needed data to verify our concepts and validate that this is now ready for launch.

Q. What do you think are the obstacles in swapping batteries? What is the role of the Battery Identification Number?

If we talk about vehicles, every vehicle would have a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or chassis number so that you can track all the vehicles or identify every individual vehicle. Now, when we are treating battery as an independent asset, which is owned by an operator, we would want that I can identify every battery uniquely, wherever we are going. I know that there are lakhs of batteries, but each battery when it is coming to me for any purpose such as for exchange, maintenance, return, replacement, or whatever reason; I should be able to identify who is the manufacturer, when was it manufactured, what is the life of this battery, what is the type of the battery, what is the chemistry that has been used inside the battery; all of this information needs to be packed in an identifier. That's where we came up with this term, Battery Identification Number (BIN) where all this information was actually found. This became very easily trackable and traceable.

Swap protocol helped us tie all different pieces together and bring all manufacturers of the subsystems on the common platform. In the entire ecosystem, the actors that we have are the battery, swap station, user, and vehicle. We all, the manufacturers or the service providers, are making these subsystems independently. We do not worry that this system needs to be talking to the other subsystems. In a vehicle, if there is a motor, battery, or anything else, if they're not talking to each other; we cannot optimize, we cannot track anything.

The purpose of this protocol was to standardize a few things by which these subsystems could be made interoperable. For example, if my battery works in my vehicle, this battery should also work in your vehicle, while there is some intelligence in the battery. If I say that I'm going to provide you a battery that is monitorable; it will give you details about what is its life, charge, safety. This is my own proprietary stuff that will work in your vehicle. But when it goes to a vehicle of your friend, because his vehicle would have its own communications, it won't be able to talk to that. So, the very first step was to make it open for people, for OEMs to adopt that and worked on a standard that in India, whosoever is producing all these components; they come on that single unified platform where they can adopt it and make systems interoperable.

If I'm the service provider for the battery, I can take the battery from suppliers A, B, C, D; it doesn't matter to me, it will talk to all the vehicles. So, if I follow that protocol, it will ensure that! We were saying that the batteries should be treated as fuel. Now, this fuel has to be a common fuel irrespective of the vehicle, like we go to the petrol station of any petrol supplier. We don’t worry that the fuel might not work in my vehicle. That was the purpose for which we created this protocol, i.e. to bring standardization and interoperability.

Q. How do you think that every OEM would adopt this particular standardization of protocol? What are your plans for that?

It’s definitely not easy. You, we cannot work in silos to say that everyone starts adopting. That's where we created a forum of about 30-35 companies, who were interested to start EVs or were working on any sub-systems. We tried to collect them throughout the country created a forum and data a few iterations on what are the difficulties, what are the issues to be resolved, and thereby did iterations on this protocol almost about three to four times after getting the inputs from all the industry partners and formulated it and got it signed from them. That is where we started that work, so that was the very first step. 

The next step was standardization where the efforts are on. Bureau of Indian standards is now making standards for electric vehicles for different things like charging, swapping different segments of vehicles (low EVsmid-EVs, and the higher side of the vehicles). Once those standards are in place, I think largely a lot of these things would get resolved. And that's where our experience actually is into formulating these standards also is quite fruitful and making the standardization for the country.

Q. How would you compare between fast charging and battery swapping? Do you think in the future, advancements in batteries could eliminate battery swapping and more charging stations would pop up at some time?

At some time maybe! We cannot deny the fact that technology is fast changing. If we talk about the batteries that we are seeing now, i.e. lithium-ion batteries NMCsLFPs, they were researched upon for their final success about two-and-a-half decades back. So, it's 20-25 years old technology that took time to mature, commercialize and become stable. So, whatever we are talking about or seeing the lab's successful trials at this point, we are not going to see that commercial success very soon in a couple of years or five years. It might take maybe about 8 - 10 years to see another form of chemistry that comes up which would be able to replace the batteries affordably.

Since India is an affordability-driven market, and the very point of introducing swapping for the segments that we are talking about in the country was to bring down the cost, i.e. to increase the affordability of the vehicle and the adoption of electric vehicles. These batteries would come at a higher cost and at this point also whatever batteries can charge at a faster rate like LTO batteries, for example, we can charge them at much faster rates as compared to the batteries like NMCs and LFPs. But the cost is almost like two-and-a-half times to three times and even higher than that. So, for us to afford NMCs and LFPs is also getting difficult, and we are thinking of finding solutions to segregate them. For sure, we are not able to adopt these batteries for the kind of segments or the affordability that we have for the country. That's where battery swapping becomes a very important step.

If the chemistry comes in such a way that the energy densities are increasing, and tomorrow, we can incorporate better higher energy densities into these batteries, then it will become even more attractive for the battery swapping because in the same, let's say in 14 KGs, if we are giving them 2-kilowatt hour capacity of the battery; tomorrow, we should be able to provide them 3-kilowatt hour or 4-kilowatt hours of the energy packed into the same form factor in the same weight, that will bring a lot of advantage. If right now we are offering them to take a battery and run maybe about 60 kilometers in one go in a scooter or two-wheeler. So, tomorrow, they will be able to run maybe about 150 - 200 kilometers, so that technological advancement would be translated into the benefit of the user in that manner.

Electric Vehicles in India

Q. We don't have battery manufacturers especially for electric vehicles in India. Why do you think we don't have one? And do you think, in the future, we might be manufacturing our batteries?

The battery pack comprises of two-three parts. 60% of the battery value comes from the cells like the batteries used in our laptops or cell phones, and many other instruments, 18650 or pouch or prismatic cells. The simple reason is that the country doesn't have chemistry. Right now, we also don't see much of the JVs. In the last one-two years, a few JVs have been announced for cell manufacturing with outside technology. The reason that we didn't have cell manufacturing is that we didn't have the chemistry that could emerge out of the fundamental research here in the country.

From the R&D point of view or commercialization point of view, we define R&D into two different parts. One is the fundamental R&D and the others the applied one. Fundamental R&D is where on the chemistry side of it, we have been missing for the finalization or fine-tuning of the product. And I think that has started to happen. There are four or five good organizations that are working on it. Then on the applied side, which is largely the engineering side that is where we have the solutions now. Several battery manufacturers have started to manufacture batteries in the country. Of course, most of the components going into the cells are imported from other countries. We import the cells and do the engineering around them, electronics, mechanical arrangement, thermal arrangement, and electrical arrangement. Some companies are into setting up their battery manufacturing plants, and they're doing it successfully.

Q. What are you currently working on at Esmito and what products can we expect in the market soon?

At this point, we are planning to launch energy as a service, where we can provide the batteries on rent or swappable batteries to our partners in different market segments, largely concentrated towards the commercial segment side of it; for deliveries, logistics, and e-commerce applications, where we can become their energy partners while they focus on their logistics sides, and they can get rid of their worries on the technology or on the supply of the fuel. For them, it will be easier to expand their side of logistics because they will be focusing on their vehicles while we can take care of all the worries around the batteries. They don't have to worry about how soon the batteries are going to end or safety concerns, etc. Secondly, since we would also be of the solution ourselves, we will be supplying the battery management systems and the IoT VCUs as well for the OEMs or the partners.

Q. What is the role of IoT? Are you monitoring battery health i.e. motor health?

This is a kind of integrated solution specialized towards electric vehicles, where you can monitor the motors, controllers, or anything else in the vehicle along with the batteries, and put it on to the cloud to get the history. Also, we can perform a lot of analytics, we can figure out the health of the batteries, issues with the battery, or the motors. We can all get the data as performance characteristics of a vehicle, from there and we can control the vehicle also accordingly.

She ended up the conversation with a message for the youngsters, and people who have been associated with electric vehicles or in the automobile sector that it is the very right time that we jump into this segment and try to see that how collectively we can work together to bring out the solution for our market and our society. This is a very huge market and we are not a competition to each other but at this point in time, we have to work in collaboration; we have to join hands together, see how quickly and how innovative solutions we can formulate to solve the problems of our own society because if we do not solve it, no one else is going to come here to solve the techno-commercial challenges for our country. We need to work together and bring out good solutions, formulate our standards and not worry about success or failures; we have to keep on trying, and success is bound to happen. And it's a very, very good market-challenging, an interesting and huge potential market where we can all contribute together.

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