When two entrepreneurs started the first electric cab service in Bengaluru, investment gurus were skeptical about its success. Sanjay Krishnan and Ashwin Mahesh, who started Lithium Urban Technologies to give a pollution-free and environment-friendly transportation solution, are now happy that their endeavour is finding more takers in Bengaluru and elsewhere in the country.
Lithium started service in Bengaluru in 2015 with just 10 cabs, and has now expanded to 10 cities with around 500 vehicles in its ambit. It started its journey when there was no electric power charging stations. "It was a challenge to begin operations in Bengaluru as the infrastructure was not up to the mark. We started off with the corporate transportation opportunity and firmed up our business model around it," Krishnan says.
Lithium is looking at technology to serve better. "Besides providing convenience, safety, and security to the passenger, technology should give public transportation ease of access, must provide safety, and ensure security in the most basic sense," he said.
Lithium puts technology into different buckets. "One is vehicle-related technology, including vehicle battery, and second is what we create or do with our sub-systems," he says.
"Third aspect is connecting the car to the fleet management system including telematics. Technology also helps in rewarding our drivers on the performance and recruit the best guys," he says.
The company intends to partner with the tech ecosystem, which includes energy, infrastructure, vehicle, battery, information tech, geostation analytics, telemetry and telematics. "We have a very small technology team and we keep the core proprietary staff in-house. Otherwise, the rest is outsourced. We are looking at developing a lean technology team below 50 engineers," he says. The company is in the process of registering IPs for different technologies.
On the operations and expansion of the company, Krishnan said city-to-city, there are differences. "We can't apply the same strategy for all cities. We can see differences in the way the city is laid out, the distances and the transport regulations. So therefore, there is a difference from state to state when we carry out business across India," says Krishnan.
He said that over a period, the learning for the company is essentially more on the internal challenges. "I think that in terms of what we have managed to do is by creating a uniform operating system across the organisation, modulating the timing propositions across different locations, hiring the best talent and maintaining the same organisation culture like what we have in Bengaluru, that must be transferred to every location," he says.
On the learning from Bengaluru, Lithium COO Praveen says that geography, climate and the road conditions affect functioning. "We had to change many things when we started our operations in Delhi-NCR. Unlike Bengaluru, the landscape and climatic conditions vary in the NCR. It will impact our electricity consumption. It's been a learning for us and are still learning," he said.
Praveen said the company's average use of a vehicle is between 250-300 km per day. "Our focus is B2B service and B2C is not in the near future. The B2B market itself is very big. There's a problem we can solve there, let's solve that problem. We have good traction in that field," Krishnan says.
He said that the company is not interested in consumer transport, but maybe interested in mass transport on the freeway. "You know mass transportation is the need of the hour for a country like India or for any urban city. It's also an opportunity," he says.
Lithium has developed 50 charging stations in Bengaluru, and is going to create an infrastructure of 70 chargers in Delhi. In June 2017, two more proposals were sanctioned by the committee allowing a group of companies like Mahindra Reva, Ola, Lithium Urban Technologies and Asia Electric to set up charging infrastructure in the NCR.
The Centre's FAME scheme (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles), which started in 2015 and got renewed in April 2017, has given more teeth in building infrastructure.
The company has put on board drivers in different ways. "We have different models in which drivers are not employees, and nobody owns the electric vehicle. It's a model that ensures that drivers are not overworked. We take pride to inform that we take care of their families too," says Krishnan.
The company also gives them proper training before hiring. Any driver that joins Lithium has to go through a three day training programme. This is done because all cars are electric and automatic. About 95% of the drivers have never driven an automatic car, Praveen says.
Lithium is looking at doubling its fleet by March 2018. It is operating for an Indian as well as an MNC company and a couple of PSUs have gotten in touch.
Lithium currently has 400 cars and two drivers per car. It plans to raise the number to 1,000 cars by the end of the financial year, and hire about 2,000 more drivers. This will be across five markets - National Capital Region, Pune, Hyderabad, and Chennai, besides Bengaluru.
Lithium's plans come against the backdrop of ambitious government plans for a mass-scale shift to electric vehicles by 2030, so that all vehicles on Indian roads by then - both personal and commercial - are powered by electricity. It will also reduce India's dependence on oil imports, which are expected to double to $300 billion by 2030.
Even though the company did an equity infusion of $1.3 million (around Rs 15 crore, it will raise the fund as per the requirement. "We are probably one of the largest EV cab fleet operator outside of China. I think India is a big enough market. I think what we have is a big enough problem here to solve and we want to keep our focus in tact," Praveen says.
When asked about the evolution of technology in electric car, he said the car will become part of energy infrastructure. "In mature markets abroad, the car also becomes a source of energy because it has a battery and storage. What is happening in the world right now is energy generation is becoming decentralised and microgrids are gaining more importance. It will bring disruption and we want to be in that space in the long run," Krishan adds.