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Electric Mobility: Preparing for the big shift | Chapter 3

Electric Mobility | Chapter Three
Electric Mobility | Chapter Three

Mobility Engineer 2030 - Chapter Three

Bharath’s Segue to Electric Mobility

When Bharath called up the CTO’s office, he could feel the sense of urgency in the executive assistant’s (EA) voice. The CTO, Dr. Sharma, was meeting a delegation of EV Experts and he wanted Bharath to be at his office at 3pm sharp. The EA did not have any more details. Bharath quickly reorganized his other meetings for the day and rushed to the CTO’s office. The drive from the factory to the corporate HQ could take an hour. As he was driving, several thoughts crossed his mind - where was this delegation from and why was he required in that meeting?

As he reached the CTO’s office, the energy and rush in the atmosphere was evident. People were running around answering phone calls, picking up printouts from the printer and periodically looking at the main door to see if the delegation was back. The delegation had gone for a visit around the office and the Innovation Gallery, Dr. Sharma’s pet project where physical and virtual vehicle models were displayed. Dr. Sharma’s EA told Bharath that the delegation consisted of startups and industry associations from the automobile industry in the U.S.A. They were looking for a technology partner in India for designing and manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs) for Indian markets. Bharath has to showcase the technical and product development capabilities in his organization and present the case for how they would be a good technology partner.

That was a bolt from the blue for Bharath, as he was still trying to get his way around with EVs and autonomy in driving. He quickly put his thoughts together. What did he know additionally that Dr. Sharma and his team did not know? When the delegation got back, they settled down in the board room. Dr. Sharma gave an overview about the R&D and product development capabilities and then they started the Q & A session. The very first question was on the organization’s point-of-view on EVs and their potential for impact in India. All eyes turned to Bharath.

His throat went dry and Bharath felt a bit sweaty. He took couple of deep breaths, calmed himself down. He thought “what is happening to me is not because I am tensed – all because I am too excited to get this opportunity”. He immediately gained a lot of confidence. The butterfly in the guts settled down. He stood up, walked to the center and explained how the organization looked at EVs and autonomous vehicles not just as products on their own, but as an ecosystem. EVs need multiple stakeholders to work together in tandem – charging stations, technology partners, good roads that were mapped with GPS, connectivity for feedback etc., He explained how his team will take a ‘systems thinking’ approach to EV in contrast to a product approach that was prevalent with internal combustion engines (ICEs). He explained how incremental or linear improvement in efficiency improvement in ICEs is insignificant when compared to what EVs had to offer. Electric, connected, autonomous and shared mobility technologies promise orders of magnitude improvement in the cost to drive and he described how his team used ‘exponential thinking’, in a recent project, to create a ten-fold improvement in benefit.

Bharath described the team’s expertise in Design Thinking (DT) and how it has helped to create products with a good market fit. He highlighted the unique needs in the Indian market that their DT insight exercise has revealed. He described DT as a three-legged stool. The legs are Desirability from the customers’ point-of-view, Feasibility from technology and manufacturability point-of-view and finally Viability from business point-of-view. The top plate represents Sustainability. The three legs should be balanced at all times to achieve product sustainability.

Design Thinking approach - balancing Desirability, Viability and Feasibility 
to achieve Sustainability
Design Thinking approach - balancing Desirability, Viability and Feasibility to achieve Sustainability

Bharath explained that while the US team can help with investment and technical knowledge transfer, Bharath’s company will be able to develop the technology and create products that suits the Indian context. The company’s accelerated product development strategy for EV and its deep understanding of the local customers makes Bharath’s team the right partner for the U.S. team.

The delegation looked quite involved with Bharath’s explanations. They further wanted to know Bharath’s opinion on affordability of EVs, for a developing market like India. If the price of EVs does not reach parity with traditional vehicles for a few years, how can there be good sales volume? Bharath put on his CFO hat and explained how they had plans to use subscription-based business models, by making use of technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT). Instead of a one-time sale of cars to customers, a contract can be signed with them. They will be charged a monthly fee based on the number of kilometers they have driven. The vehicle maker will take care of all maintenance, repair and insurance costs. Some car makers had already launched it in India. But it was a flat monthly fee, irrespective of usage. The rate per kilometer would be arrived at based on an individual’s driving history, the model of the car, the fuel used, vehicle handling etc., Digital technologies will play a key role in such a business model. It was also referred to as ‘servitization’ across industries, not just in the automotive sector.

Bharath returned to the factory after that meeting and got immersed in his current project – he completely forgot about the EV discussion. After a few days, Dr. Sharma’s EA called him again. He said that the delegation was quite impressed with the presentation and wanted the CTO and team to present to their top management in the U.S.A. Bharath had to travel along with the team during the week-end. He started thinking about all engagements he had to cancel. A few personal commitments got postponed but he did not mind – what was coming was way bigger an opportunity for Bharath. After a couple of days, the company’s travel partners got flight tickets and hotel booked for Bharath and team. As his flight took off, he kept thinking about the presentation deck that he had put together. He made sure all points he presented in the boardroom meeting were covered – systems thinking, design thinking, servitization. He added one more metric to compare the car sale vs servitization business models - Net Present Value or NPV. NPV is the current value of future cash flows, for a given interest rate.

Bharath on his flight back to India after making a successful pitch in the US
Bharath on his flight back to India after making a successful pitch in the US

The schedule was tight – Bharath did not get much time to practice his pitch but the presentation went on well. The team had some time before catching the return flight to India. Sitting in the airport lobby, he started introspecting how much his outlook on the automotive industry had changed! From fuel efficient ICEs, he had started talking about autonomous, electric vehicles with algorithms to assist the driver. He was no longer only worried about manufacturing such vehicles faster and cheaper but he was thinking of business models through which these new age vehicles could be made affordable for end customers. He was looking at automobiles from the perspectives of the broader society, the environment and employability. Will his team get selected for the joint venture? What will be his role if selected? Jet lag finally caught up with him and he dozed off. He had a vivid dream featuring cars that flew and cars that spoke to him. He had no inkling of the surprise awaiting him in Chennai.

Pavan’s metamorphosis into an EV professional

When Pavan turned around to see who was calling him with so much excitement, he saw Kavya waving at him. She joined Pavan along with a cup of hot masala tea. She was excited about meeting Pavan again. She enquired about how Pavan’s interview went. When Pavan said that he was quite satisfied with his interview discussion, she said that she was a bit unsure about her interview performance. She was keen to join the company and she hoped that she gets selected. They recollected their eBaja experience at Indore and reflected on how much that exposure helped them to field the questions in the interview. The interviewers were looking beyond technical knowledge, they were looking at the candidate’s ability to collaborate and work in a cross-functional team. They were also looking at the candidate’s innovation and creative problem solving ability. Pavan and Kavya were in a relaxed state of mind, after their interview, to chat and exchange their coordinates. He saw her off at the airport and returned to his college. After scoring a hat trick, he was floating in the clouds for the next few days and he had a tough time concentrating on what is being taught in the classroom.

It was about a week after his interview and Pavan was busy attending a lecture on Vehicle Dynamics. He was quite surprised when he received a call from his father in the middle of the class. His father was aware of the class timings and he does not disturb him unless there was something urgent. Pavan patiently waited for the class to end and ran out to call back his father. His father was so excited! Pavan had received an offer letter from his dream company. They had also sent a few recent issues of their product magazine and a scale model of one of their vehicles. Pavan’s father was more excited than him and had started reading the magazines. Pavan was too thrilled to attend the remaining classes. He ran to meet Prof. Murugan and update him. Murugan was equally happy and made sure Pavan celebrated it with a visit to their favourite restaurant. After informing his friends, Pavan called Kavya. Unfortunately, her phone was not reachable. When he called up his father again, he reminded him to call the HR manager and convey his acceptance of their job offer.

Pavan talking, very excitedly, on the phone
Pavan talking, very excitedly, on the phone

When Pavan spoke to the HR manager, she congratulated Pavan and said she looked forward to his induction after his course formalities were over. Once he had the provisional certificate, he could join, without waiting for the convocation. She mentioned a few topics where Pavan had to pick up his skills before joining. His focus will be on EV technology development. Most of the topics she mentioned were not part of Pavan’s curriculum. He made a mental note to talk to Prof. Murugan on how he could pick up those skills. Pavan managed to talk to Kavya later in the evening. She was also offered a GET Role in the R&D track. She was also provided a set of topics to focus on before completing her course work and joining. Pavan was happy that Kavya will also join the same organization where he would begin his career.

Professor Murugan advised Pavan to understand the fundamentals of EVs, especially in the Indian context. Murugan promised to give Pavan a four-lettered success mantra and he dramatically went to the whiteboard and started writing it down - MOOC. He said that the most appropriate MOOCs will be the one that covers the technology associated with each element of EV and also cover the economics of EVs in India vis-à-vis ICE vehicles. He directed Pavan to Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala’s (IIT Madras) course on NPTEL [1]. The course had a comprehensive coverage of an Overview of Electric Vehicles in India, Vehicle Dynamics, Vehicle Subsystems: EV Power-train - Storage for EVs, Fundamentals of EV Battery Pack design and EV Motors and Controllers: Fundamentals and Design, Vehicle Accessories, Battery Charging and Swapping and Management of EV Infrastructure. Pavan was very happy to find a ready course that covers both the technology and economics aspects of EV.

As Pavan was about to leave, Murugan also mentioned someone called Bharath who was working in the same company which offered him a role. He said Bharath was his college mate and he was not in touch of late. But they had worked on a project together when they were students. Murugan gave Bharath’s contact details to Pavan and asked him to contact him. “Networking among professionals who match your areas of interest is important these days.” Prof. Murugan said. Pavan wrote an email to what looked like Bharath’s personal mail id and did not expect a quick reply. He decided to give him a call. Bharath was in a meeting when Pavan called. He also did not answer calls from unknown numbers. Pavan made a mental note to call back the number and check back later in the evening.

Pavan also got to know that he, by virtue of his eBaja background, will be a member of a skunkworks team to build a prototype autonomous vehicle. He decided to enroll for a MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) course on self-driving cars. There were quite a few MOOCs that covered topics such as autonomous vehicle architecture, the sensors and electronic control units used and how they integrated with the vehicle’s steering and drive train. He liked Udacity’s Nanodegree course on Driverless Car Engineer [2] that had detailed modules on Computer Vision, Deep Learning, Sensor Fusion, Localization, Planning, Control and System Integration. Pavan was excited that he will be able to apply computer vision and deep learning to automotive problems, including detecting lane lines, predicting steering angles, and more. He will also learn sensor fusion to filter data from an array of sensors in order to perceive the environment. Finally, he will have an opportunity to run his code in a simulation on Udacity's self-driving car.

Pavan understood what Prof Murugan meant when he said ‘MOOCs have democratized education’, especially in these COVID pandemic days when meeting as a group was considered risky. Courses from the top-notch universities across the world were available at an affordable cost at the click of a button – lectures, evaluation, further reading material, collaboration with other students. For students like him, it helped fill gaps that his curriculum did not cover. For students who were willing to go the extra mile, MOOCs was the best option available.

When Pavan went home that weekend, there was a bulky white cover that was waiting for him. It had come from the United States and the stampings on it were not very clear. Little did he realize that opening this cover is going to create the biggest dilemma of his life. This had the potential to put Pavan at the proverbial crossroads.

- To be Continued.

Note:

All opinions and points-of-view expressed above are those of the authors and do not represent that of any other individual or organization.

The authors thank Sayantan Mukherjee for meticulously reviewing the drafts and suggesting important improvements.

References

[1] MOOCs on EVs -

(a) Fundamentals of Electric vehicles: Technology & Economics, Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, NPTEL

(b) Fundamentals of Electric vehicles: Technology & Economics, Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Prof. Kaushal Jha, Prof. L Kannan, Prof. Prabhjot Kaur, IIT Madras, NPTEL

[2] Become a Self-Driving Car Engineer, Nanodegree program, Udacity

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Dr Shankar Venugopal | Ramachandran S

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