EV penetration has shot up in recent times with electric two-wheelers driving the game for the larger part. Overall, in the Indian two-wheeler segment, electric two-wheelers account for 6 percent market share but within that share, electric scooters specifically make up approximately 20 percent of sales, which is significant. The space has seen the introduction of several brands over the years and the first set included the likes of Hero Electric, Okinawa and the second set saw an influx of startups like Ather and Ola. However, legacy brand Bajaj seems to have a slow-paced and different approach to the action with its 100 percent subsidiary Chetak Technology Limited (CTL), an e-scooter company that has been selling just one scooter since 2020.
TOI Auto recently sat down with Eric Vas, President, Bajaj (electric vehicles), CTL and Board Member, Yulu. We asked Vas about the lukewarm approach of CTL towards the EV rush and how it plans to catch up with the high-volume sellers of the segment. He started by saying “If we ask ourselves, what happened with the first set of players, they have been relegated to the bottom end of the market. The second set is at the top end of the market and is now trying to move its portfolio down.
In contrast, we have stuck to one product so far but what looks from the surface as one product is not just one for the OEM. We have another line of business, where we supply a specific product for mobility as a service, called the Yulu Bike. Yulu already has an operational fleet of close to 12,000 units, deployed across three cities and it is expected to grow to around 25,000 by March 31, 2023. So with the Yulu and Chetak, we are supplying two different markets with very different products.”
Vas further pointed out that Yulu has a very different battery chemistry than the Chetak electric scooter, giving Bajaj expertise in two different products and handling different battery chemistries (LFP and NMC), something that the President and Board Member believes is a big differentiator for the legacy brand and its capabilities.
“How many OEMs are able to handle that? That is why I say this is a long game, not a short one. To succeed here, you need to have basic competencies around batteries, motors, controllers, communication, Controller Area Network (CAN) devices and chargers.
Do all parties in the market have these competencies? I very much doubt so. Today I can say with complete confidence that we are the only OEM in the country that owns the intellectual property of its motor, battery, motor control unit and vehicle control unit, BMS and onboard charger. Nobody else owns their own, they are buying the motor from someone and they might be working on the battery or it is the other way around with another player. Nobody straggles with the whole thing.” Vas told TOI Auto.
According to the CTL President, it is important to straggle through the technology to ensure the right outcomes such as longevity, dependable battery life and long-term ownership satisfaction are achieved. “Take a Chetak electric which has done 40,000km and park it against its key rivals and see which one has aged better, and which one has deteriorated the least. The winner would be the one that has a mechanical build quality.” Vas said.
He went on further and said, “Measure the State-of-Health (SOH) of the batteries, it is a simple measure and tells you how much percentage of battery health is left after a full charge, just like a smartphone. I am guaranteeing you that Chetak’s battery SOH would be about 500 basis points better than any of the competitors after 40,000 km. If a competing product’s SOH is at 90 percent, Chetak electric’s would be at 95 percent. That is our technology!”
Bajaj Chetak electric scooter
For a more straightforward comparison, Vas asked us to compare peak power (kW) and continuous power (kW) mentioned on the spec sheets of other electric scooters in the market. According to him, “The difference between these two figures tells you about the quality and the capability of an EV’s motor and motor controller. We have the minimum gap, the Chetak’s peak power is 4.01 kW and continuous power is 3.8 kW. Everybody will show you a higher peak power but the continuous power figure will be sitting at 70 percent of that figure. For an electric scooter, continuous power is more important, it is not a motorcycle which has to do performance runs or wheelies and needs a high peak power. Just picking up the highest-spec motor does not work. This is why it is a long game, it is a game where we have developed our technology stacks in a fairly comprehensive manner and put a lot of resources into that.”
In the immediate terms, however, for a first-time EV buyer, these concepts are still very foreign. OEMs typically attract buyers by promising attractive range figures or top speeds, concepts that are easily comprehensible. Why should a layman research the technology stack of a Chetak electric over other attractive features such as a touchscreen and GPS navigation that the competitors offer? To this, Vas answered by saying that the electric scooters in the market are not Bajaj’s competitors, rather it is the ICE scooter that needs to be beaten in this game. An ICE scooter of today, is very high-quality, well-engineered and has been refined over years and works brilliantly. Vas counter-questioned us by asking, “How do you win against a product like that in the absence of subsidy, the certainty of which is certain? In the presence of subsidies right now, OEMs can do many things. We can package a 5kWh battery with the government subsidising it, we can offer it at a great price point as well and the customers are happy about getting a great range figure 150 to 160 km. However, when the subsidy vanishes, no one is going to pay for these long-range scooters and that is where the big problem lies.
The important issue is how OEMs will continue to sell these scooters when the subsidy starts coming down, which will happen sooner or later as no government can infinitely subsidise. So how do you win? That is the question that any enterprise needs to ask itself in the long run and this is also why a battery that lasts longer is better. So technology concerns may not show up today but when the subsidy is gone, it will become a point of concern for the customer.”
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Vas claimed that their study shows that buyers are not interested in flashy gadgets and features if it means they end up spending more for them. “The reason I am saying this with great confidence is, Ather has tried repeatedly to charge its customers for the data pack but they have been forced to give it for free for the last 3.5 years, this tells you what? A customer doesn’t actually want to pay for data and they actually don’t care for that feature. They are happy if they get it for free but in that case that feature is not a recipe for success.”
He further pointed out that it is important to recognise the limitations of such a strategy and play to your strengths. He claims that Chetak customers praise the scooter’s build quality and planted ride by saying things like, ‘tagda gadi hai’. “These are vehicular attributes, they are not smartphone attributes. Can we put a fancy display on the Chetak? Ofcourse, we can, it is just a matter of cost but it is already priced at a particular point which is on the higher end.” Vas added.
The Chetak electric scooter is made out of metal, something that the competition cannot do claimed Vas, because it involves a whole other process called metal stamping. He also believes that scooters made of metal are the most suitable for India as historically such scooters have been successful in the country. The simple reason is durability and longevity. Vas further said, “Metal has huge advantages such as longevity, pride of ownership, the colour gloss, the convenience of taking it to a local repair shop to bash out dents and getting a repaint and so on. These things cannot be achieved with plastics and they look shabby after 2.5 years. So a longevity and solidity factor matters a lot to consumers.”
With a price tag of Rs 1.5 lakhs, the Chetak electric scooter may not get many buyers right now but Vas is confident that they have everything ready for the meat of the market and its requirements. “When Rajeev Bajaj says he will launch a Chetak every year then he means he will be addressing various other segments of the market,” Vas said.
However, the current focus of the legacy brand is on developing products that are subsidy-safe and affordable even without them. Vas assured us that when consumers will have to pay unsubsidised costs for an electric scooter, then the market dynamics will change and Bajaj and Chetak would be ready to take on the wave.
What do you think about the comments made by Eric Vas and is Bajaj really geared up for the future or has it been left behind by companies such as Ather and Ola? Let us know in the comments.