Abhishek from PluginIndia speaks to Mr Pratik Gupta, who is founder of Strom Motors, a Mumbai based EV startup, who will be launching a city electric car in 2020. In this interview, we speak to Pratik about test drives, booking, delivery process for the Strom R3 electric car and more!
Abhishek : Pratik, welcome. We at PluginIndia are big fans of small electric cars. All of us own e2os and we have been driving electric for 7+ years and loving it! So when Strom announced the R3, we were excited, and when we met you and your team during the reveal event in 2018, we were SUPER impressed and happy for the following reasons:
- India badly needs a company that only sells electric cars like a Tesla or the classic Reva Electric Car company. All we have are BIG ICE makers for whom selling EVs is not a priority. We want Strom to be that company.
- India needs small affordable electric cars and BIG ICE does not want to make such cars even though they can. Again, we feel that Strom can be the company that can fill gaps in the market and cause massive disruption.
- Most electric vehicles sold in India (except EVs from Ather Energy) are dumb, not smart, vehicles with hardly any intelligence, software-driven drivetrains, connectivity etc. What we’ve observed is that most legacy ICE vehicle manufacturers sell and treat EVs like ICE vehicles - they make them and then forget about them; Electric vehicles are meant to be software driven, meant to be monitored remotely and with updates that improve them as they age. Here, again, with your tech industry background, we feel Strom can lead the way and show BIG ICE how it’s done.
Yes even we are waiting to see the cars on the road have people really talk about it. Some good news about that. We do have pre-production cars on the road right now we are testing. We were supposed to perform a launch, offer test drives both for media and private users in March. We have had to delay all of this due to the situation right now. The earliest we can see from our vendors, our suppliers is August timeframe we can start the whole exercise. I think we all wait and watch right now.
August is when we can see cars in road in Mumbai.
Which cities are you targeting in 2020 and 2021?
Launch city is Mumbai and we will grow towards Pune and neighbouring areas. Next phase would be Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi and other cities. We are getting lot of interest from different parts of the country. For now it's looking Mumbai, Pune first and then followed by Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi.
Tell us about the delivery process, if one books the car in August, when can they expect delivery?
We have created a priority list, even from 2018, we have a community who keep talking to us. The idea is to start taking pre-orders in August, we will go into production later this year. Cars should be rolling off the production line in December, January timeframe. These time frames are little fluid right now. It will go as per priority list, the moment we start our marketing exercise in August, we will contact the people in our priority list, who can prebook. Prebook process is where we will be asking a small token amount, which is refundable and that will be the order where we will start delivering the car. Also this will only be for Mumbai. I know lot of people who have booked the cars from all over the country. But unfortunately we want to focus on Mumbai, the main reason is service. We want to revolutionalise with door step service experience. If something goes wrong or we detect issues in your car with our IOT system, we can take an appointment with you at home or your place of work and get the car fixed. There is no hassle, where you have to take a day off and come to the dealership etc. That is why we are rolling out city by city where we can better service our customers.
Challenges faced by Strom
Abhishek : Let’s talk about the huge challenge a startup like Strom faces. Pitching the Strom vision to investors. How easy or difficult was it?
We are talking in an environment where not even a single EV startup in India is making more than 10,000 units per year (be it two wheelers or four wheelers).
There are no success stories yet in the Indian EV space. In such a scenario, how do you convince investors?
I'm glad you asked this question. The situation is very tricky. The Indian investment scene is mostly into software startups, delivery startups. There is lot of apprehension in the investment community when it comes to vehicle startup. If we try to make a competing vehicle against a bigger OEM, we will face lot of challenges. They have the buying power, the distribution and other advantages. We also have to showcase what differentiates us from the rest. In our case, we were faced with the same problem. Are we basically reinventing the wheel by launching another car, or are we really looking at the problem with a fresh idea. I think that bought about a lot of change, when investors could see Strom is not just trying to make another 4-wheeler or another car, they are looking at the base of the problem, somehow reducing the cost of EVs.
If you see all the success stories of the world. The Nissan Leaf, The Tesla Model 3 also if you look at the electric two wheeler segment in India, price parity becomes a game changer. That is where Strom is looking to even out the field. These are challenges every startup face, but the challenges are amplified in the automotive world.
We have done good so far, we have had some hiccups, we are also waiting to see what comes out the current situation.
Abhishek : The second challenge is acquiring the right vendors. You cannot promise large volumes to vendors, which they tend to expect. How did you and your team manage vendor acquisition?
That was the biggest challenge when we came up with the concept. It was so different. We had to break it down and convince each and every vendor. There are several big ones in India and they are used to doing large volumes. When startups come into the picture, it's a different ballgame. It really needed a lot of convincing. We are trying to look at the problem with a fresh mindset, which appealed to the owners of these vendor companies. Rather than going on a bottom up approach, we went with a top down approach. We met the senior management and convinced them, that this is what we are doing and lot of them wanted to be partners in the journey. We are lucky to have a very enterprising automative base in India. They really put their muscle behind it and help us out. Things were challenging at the start just to get an understanding on how things work.
To your point about the low sales numbers of EV startups, we have to consider the Indian EV startup ecosystem is very young. We all started only 4-5 years ago.
If you take a startup in US like Rivian, they started in 2009 and Tesla started way back before that. As a company in the automotive world, you need time, as you have a lot of work with regards to testing and you cant rush things. So overall the industry is a slow moving giant. It's a challenge. At Strom we we are standing in the shoulder of other good companies who have done good work before us, so we cant take all the claim for that. We thank the Indian automotive industry who have been helpful to us.
Abhishek : Let’s talk about the car. With the Strom R3, the first thing one notices is the three-wheel design. Many of our viewers have apprehensions about that. Advocates of three-wheelers point to the mechanically simplified chassis, lower manufacturing costs, and superior handling characteristics, whereas opponents decry the three-wheeler’s propensity to overturn. Both opinions have merit. We would love to get your thoughts on this, especially about the reverse trike design.
Yeah, very early on we took this decision, this was purely on physics and mainly due to weight reduction and costs. If you look at electric cars in the market, they weigh a lot and cost more than 10 lakhs and its a huge task to convince people pay 2-3 times for an EV. How do you cut down weight, the answer was using a platform which is much more lighter. Also we learnt from companies like Morgan, Polaris etc who have launched cars and serviced on the 3 wheel platform. In terms of technical, it's as stable as a hatchback. We know we are against a very difficult perception. But i think, people who really understand automotive, will see the tradoffs and huge advantages. I remember when i was growing up, Santro came to India and there was the perception that it was a tall-boy design and it will topple in Indian roads etc. But it went on to become one of the largest selling cars in India. Its more of a matter of perception, the more people see them driving around the city they will realise its like driving a normal car.
Abhishek : Another big apprehension about small cars is safety. Over the years, we have observed many people looking at our e2os and saying
‘Oh, a large SUV would crush that thing into atoms’!. I can't even imagine the comments we will get when we ride the Strom.
How can you reassure our viewers on safety?
Safety was the second thing we looked into. There were some very initial design decisions we took. One was the use of bigger, wider tyres. While EV enthusiasts will tell you to use thinner tyres to reduce friction. So when you look at crashes, you need to take a look from an academic kind of perspective.
There are three kinds of crashes. One is caused by driver error in city with bumper to bumper traffic. Those are at low speeds. Then there are other crashes at medium speeds, for that a seat belt system is great. Adding other advantages for high speed crashes are airbags. We have airbags coming in our platform in the next year.
We also have to remember, we are a city car where top speed are very low. In Indian cities, the high crash chances are really low.
We are also using high tensile tubeless structure, which is regarded as a way of designing robust cars. It's expensive compared to monocox, but it gives you a good stable platform with a rigid body. We have done all the tests we can do. We have seen crazy NCAP testing videos, where even premium SUV's in India really crumple.
You wont get that with a high tensile steel frame. There are some tradeoffs with these. These are expensive and slower to build. But being a small platform we have to take these into consideration and deliver on safety.
Software Updates, Remote Monitoring & Privacy
Abhishek : Let’s talk about tech. The first thing we want to know is if the car is software driven.
What I mean is, can the drivetrain be enhanced with software? Will users get OTA updates that actually affect/improve the drivetrain?
In terms of tech, yes OTA updates are standard. You can change driving dynamics of the car either through the in-dash system or via your phone. As we get data from our customers, we will be changing some of those to improve efficiency and performance. So those are built into it. Rather than giving you just GPS tracking and other trivial features, there are lots of other features which we have added. We are tracking every moving part like the wear and tear of the AC system, your batteries, your cooling fans. We kind of have a lifetime understanding of what your cars have gone through. We also look at the terrains you are driving in. Being in India, we are used to bad road conditions. How can we change car parameters to get more efficiency.
When we talk about data, we also will talk about privacy. We have taken all industry precautions on storing and encrypting your data. Only you and your phone can access data from your car. Its your choice to share the data. When you share the data, you will get access to lots of connected features. If you own a Strom, i would encourage you to share the data and be rest assured you know what we do with your data.
Abhishek : Can I monitor the health of the battery pack? After five years, we have observed that cells in battery packs tend to get weak. Usually, we are in the dark about this, and with no reliable battery health information, we have seen many EVs stalling with zero warning.
Can you give us some insight into how Strom is handling this?
Regarding battery degradation in our testing, its 2 and half percent per year. I see a lot of posts on your forums where people have battery issues. Its also got to do with batteries that are old generation technology designed 7-8 years ago. Every 6 months we see changes in cells, BMS, chemistry etc. We have not seen erratic behaviour in our extensive tests. In terms of data, you will know what is going on. In terms of cells, we are procuring cells from top 3 companies around the world. So you don't have to worry about such issues.
Abhishek : We heard that Strom got a lot of enquiries from abroad. That is extremely promising. Tell us about that. Also tell us about your local production facilities to meet demand in the coming year. You have chosen Bombay as your manufacturing base, we believe? That’s fascinating to me. Do elaborate on that.
We are from Mumbai and proximity to Pune, which is a manufacturing hub, helps us a lot. The Mumbai facility will be the first phase of the company. We will be building a larger factory in one of the auto hubs. We are talking to governments and we are seeing who are more forthcoming. That will be plan for year 3 and 4.