How Reva founder Chetan Maini is trying to redefine the future of urban transport
Chetan Maini was not at all impressed by what his elder brother was learning in college. Then in Class 12, he would read the books his brother Sandeep, who was then a third-year mechanical engineering student at Manipal University, would bring home during vacation.
Once he finished a textbook on automotive engineering during a weekend — as easy as doing school homework — and asked his elder brother: “Is this what you learn in college?” The younger Maini was good at studies but was never a topper. By primary standard, he had become fascinated by machines, and how things are made at his father’s auto- component factory. By fourth grade, he had learned how to assemble radios from a 150-component kit. By sixth grade, he was modelling planes and cars. But his moment of reckoning came in the 12th standard, when he read his brother’s textbook.
Two decades later, after he had built the Reva electric car and sold his first company, Maini would credit model-building for providing him with fundamental engineering skills. “Model building defined me as a person,” says Maini. It gave him a passion away from the usual distractions of growing up. It also gave him the courage to make his own choices. When he read his brother’s textbook, he probably took the most important decision of his career — not to study engineering in India.
Currently, Maini is busy with his second venture, trying to redefine the future of urban transport. The Reva, his first venture, was the first electric car in India, but according to him, it was not a success.
“The most challenging problem that we faced with the Reva was what we didn’t solve,” he says. “We couldn’t change the consumer mindset.”
His second company, Sun Mobility, is trying to change that, armed with an innovation that has already proven to be a spectacular failure: swapping batteries.
In 2009, an Israeli company called Better Place had raised $200 million overnight based on this idea. It went on to raise another $650 million before declaring bankruptcy in 2013. But Maini is convinced that swapping batteries is the future of urban mobility. He has understood the reasons behind the failure of Better Place, mapped the ways, and formed the connections to execute a battery-swapping company in India.
The idea eliminates the pain of charging an EV each night and the fear that you will run out of range before you find a charging station. Battery swapping works like a fuel refill. Through automated kiosks in urban areas, akin to fuel stations, the company will offer battery swaps, for commercial vehicles, to begin with.
When Sun Mobility begins business early next year, an electric autorickshaw in some Indian cities will be able to swap batteries in 30 seconds. An electric bus will be able to swap batteries in three minutes.
Maini thinks battery-swapping is a long-term solution for sustainable urban transport. “His passion for getting electric vehicles on the road is greater than selling electric cars,” says Sandeep, who runs several Maini group companies.
Model-building also taught Chetan Maini how to persevere on projects for long periods. He learned how to optimise, how to source components, how to convert an old part into something completely different.
As a child, he knew the backstreets of Russell Market in Bengaluru, the electronics shops in JC Road, the hardware shops in Bidadi. Sometimes he developed the tools himself. “When in Class 7,” says Sandeep, “Chetan built a car model with his own independent suspension that we didn’t even understand.”
For the junior Maini, building models allowed learning, experimentation, and innovation. When his pilot-trainer uncle saw his talent as a child, he got him to meet a student of his in Hyderabad. Vicky Randhawa, a pilot then flying with Indian Airlines, had a passion for plane models, and owned a 5,000 square feet facility for building them. The 12-year-old Maini took a bus from Benguluru to Hyderabad and stayed with the pilot for one week. He worked in the model shop while Randhawa was away flying. He learned how to build radio-controlled planes.
At 15, Maini worked for six months on a model of P-47, a World War II plane with an intricate design. It crashed in its first flight. Maini worked on the plane for one week and flew it again. It crashed a second time. “I never got disheartened with failure,” says Maini. “Now when I look back, some of these things help me today at work.”
His extracurricular activities continued as an engineering student at the University of Michigan, which he chose because of its proximity to the Big Three in Detroit: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. He had ruled out applying for the IITs after he read his brother’s textbook.
“The IITs were too theoretical,” he says. “I am intrigued by the practical nature of things. I like theory enough to understand a problem but do not like poring over books for long periods.” Maini does not read books for pleasure.
For an automobile buff, there was no place like the University of Michigan. “My classes were good,” says Maini, “but my larger learning was in the extra-curricular activities. I would spend more time in extra-curricular activities than in coursework right from the beginning.” The decision to study in the US turned out to be critical to his development.
His first extracurricular activity was in the Supermileage Competition, to build a car that can give 500 km per litre. In 1989, during his first year itself, he became part of a student team to build and race at the World Solar Challenge in Australia. He was 20 and did not know about solar cars. But he worked on its chassis and suspension, then on the motor and powertrain, and then on the strategy for winning the race.
The University of Michigan was racing against the best in the world, which included many top universities and Honda R&D. The student team planned and executed the race well. It first ran the 3,000 km race backwards, collecting data. It installed satellite receivers on its cars, downloaded satellite weather data in real time every morning, simulated the race every day. It figured out the optimum tyre pressure for efficiency, where to stop to refuel the accompanying cars, where to sleep, and so on.
The team’s vehicle, the Sunrunner, was ranked 10th in the beginning. It eventually came third, right after Honda R&D. “Taking part in the race taught me several things,” says Maini.
The first learning was the need to go beyond technology. “We had involved the business school from the beginning,” says Maini. They raised $40,000, far more than MIT, which had richer alumni.
Second, they learned the value of an open mind. “I was 20 years old, and the others were 21 or 22. And here we were, competing against Honda R&D. When I set up Reva, this gave me the confidence to hire people without experience.”
One of his teammates was David Bell, whose father Lon Bell was an entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley. Bell had set up his company Amerigon to commercialise electric technology for the automobile industry, and Maini joined it after his master’s degree from Stanford. David took a liking to Maini from the beginning. “My son David had concluded that Chetan was very capable,” says Bell senior. “He had a good understanding of engineering and he also had communication and leadership skills.”
Amerigon was building an electric car as a demonstrator for its technologies, and Maini was soon leading the project. It was the beginning of Reva, and Maini brought some of the technologies he developed back to India. He had to learn a lot of new things, especially about the business of electric cars. He got involved in the costing of the car, trying to figure out how to make money out of Reva.
By the time he moved back to India and set up a team, he knew everything about the electric-car business — a complete view of engineering, the supply chain, the market, etc. “One of the first things you notice about Chetan is his vision,” says Yuvraj Sarda, who joined Reva in 2009, first as an intern and then as an employee. “Then you notice his ability to connect the dots and figure out the technology possibilities.”
Sun Mobility’s Bet
The initial ideas of Sun Mobility were born at Reva. Maini quickly realised that commercial electric vehicles were the answer to sustainability, and that they cannot be adopted without a charging network.
A charging network cannot be built if there are not enough vehicles to charge. He came up with a solution — set up both the charging network and a fleet of vehicles at the same time. He had asked himself a question: Can you set up the infrastructure to charge 10,000 vehicles in a city within one year?
“It is like the Chinese bamboo,” says Sarda, who is now with Sun Mobility. “You don’t see anything for a long time and suddenly you see a bamboo tree.” Maini went beyond creating a basic infrastructure for battery swapping. He wanted the network to have intelligence.
This intelligence is what Maini hopes would give Sun Mobility an advantage. The company would know the state of every battery in real time, what the users did with it, whether they were used properly or not. If they dropped the battery, the network would sense it. If the performance declined due to high temperature, the network would sense that, too. All the batteries and the entire distribution infrastructure, will be smart, relaying back business-sensitive information to a central grid. The data will eventually allow the company to predict which kiosks will need battery refills at what time, allowing for a seamless and glitch-free operation.
When Sun Mobility was set up, some of the employees wanted email addresses in their first names. It would not work, Maini said, as the company could grow to a strength of 10,000 employees. He had asked them to start invoice numbers at 10,001, to give a five-digit number from the beginning.
Maini is revving for the long haul.