Class of 2030: India’s on the cusp of an electric future. But who’s going to build it?

UPDATE: On 7 March, the government officially announced a 15% import subsidy on lithium. The Ken had earlier reported a 5% subsidy rate, as told to us by a senior official in the know of FAME-II policy discussions.

2019 will be the year of the perfect electric storm.

This is the year that India might finally get the chance, in earnest, to ride on the path to electric mobility. After almost a year of policy negotiations between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Heavy Industry (DHI), the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles scheme, or FAME-II, was passed last week. We are at the cusp of a great revolution in electric mobility, claim industry leaders.

Prominent car manufacturers, including Hyundai, Mahindra, Tata, Audi and Nissan have advertised their intentions to launch electric vehicles in 2019. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) like Tata and Mahindra, who already sell a moderate number of units in the market, hope that favourable import policies and the increased focus on local research and development will boost manufacturing and lower costs.

Auto-adjacent industries in the supply chain, like battery and powertrain—how an EV connects the batteries, motor and transmission system—makers and companies building EV-charging infrastructure, also hope to see a boost in production and sales volumes. The infusion of funds, up to Rs 10,000 crore ($1.4 billion) from Rs 5,500 crore ($780 million) under FAME-I (passed in 2015), is significant.

But this storm could also leave a disaster in its wake. India’s capacity to engineer and produce electric vehicles at the promised scale, is as middling as it is scarce. To develop quality talent for the EV sector, at scale, is no trifling matter because the learning curve for Indian manufacturers, at this point, is perpendicular. “The technology within electric vehicles changes every six months. Auto manufacturers are used to doing 1-2% improvement on internal combustion [IC-engine] units year-on-year. But EV tech has to be understood and built from scratch. It’s very challenging for a workforce that hasn’t been exposed to this tech before because 60% of the electric powertrain is different from an IC-engine,” says Chetan Maini, co-founder and vice-chairman of SUN Mobility, and creator of the first Indian electric car, REVA, which he sold to Mahindra in 1999.

According to a 2018 report by the temp staffing company Teamlease, the EV industry is staring in the face of a huge talent drought. Engineers who can work and, more importantly, innovate on EVs are thin on the ground. Currently, around 1,000 engineers are employed in the EV divisions of various automakers. By 2021, the projected requirement of such engineers in India will be 15,000.

By 2040, 55% of all new car sales will be electric; and China is projected to lead these global sales. India is desperately trying to catch up. By the end of 2019, at least five new electric car models (Hyundai Kona Electric, Mahindra EKUV100, Tata Tigor Electric, Nissan Leaf and Audi E-Tron), are slated for launch in India. Various state governments, like Delhi, are pushing for mass adoption of electric buses. Mahindra and Tata are signing tenders with government bodies like Energy Efficiency Services Limited to provide fleets of EVs for government use. But this massive push towards an electric future will be purely cosmetic if developing quality talent isn’t high on the agenda. If the Indian auto industry wants to have a fighting chance to tame this Industry 4.0 wave, it needs to rally its troops now. But the question is, how?

Basics are broken

Globally, collaborations between industry and academia have spurred the development of EV talent, who can hit the ground running in a sector that is as dynamic as it is unpredictable. For instance, when General Motors wanted to expand its electric footprint in the US, a timely tie-up with the University of Michigan helped it launch the electric car Volt. “From start to finish, a hundred people built, from scratch, a market-ready technology. This was a self-sufficient nucleus of material science experts, designers and battery engineers, who were trying to solve a common problem. Such collaborations don’t exist in India,” says Amit Gupta, an associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT-D). Gupta, who did his post-doctoral research at the University of Michigan, was a part of this collaboration, and experienced first-hand the benefit of learning from practical application. He has tried to replicate similar efforts within IIT-D, mentoring and coaching a group of 10-12 students who build electric cars for national racing competitions, but admits that these efforts are drops in a talent drought.

Outside these bright spots, adds Maini, the auto tech taught in colleges is easily 25 years old, which won’t take students far in the mercurial EV industry. The industry is upending all the old rules of separate engineering disciplines, and academia is holding onto them with an iron grip.

An electric car is a precariously balanced Jenga tower of tech, which requires, at the least, five types of engineering input—mechanical, chemical, electric, electronic and material sciences. In the US, colleges teach these skills under a “mechatronics” course, which fuses knowledge from these different fields into one, and is heavy on practical application. Indian colleges like IIT-Chennai, IIT-Delhi and Galgotias College in Greater Noida are only now beginning to tie up with industry to introduce these EV-specific courses, but are at least a decade behind their US counterparts.

“Every engineer learns about motors and batteries in college. But they are only about 50% there when it comes to practically applying this knowledge on the job,” says Sohinder Gill, president of the Society of Manufacturers of Electric Vehicles (SMEV). India doesn’t have access to rare earth magnets, like dysprosium, neodymium, and praseodymium, which are used in EV motors, says Gill. “Under FAME-II, the government is willing to fund research that can find alternative materials to engineer these magnets,” he adds.

However, the most critical area of research, claim Gill and Gupta, is finding an alternative to lithium, which makes battery-manufacturing the most expensive part of the EV supply-chain.  Even though the price of lithium batteries has reduced by almost 80% since 2010, the lead-to-lithium transition has not been kind to manufacturers. Primarily because India, without reserves of its own, has to depend on expensive lithium imports, which drive up the cost of producing and selling EVs. “These are all very hard and expensive areas of research, and we need home-grown talent to carry it out. Without that, widespread adoption won’t be possible, and without commercial scale, there are going to be far fewer opportunities to rapidly develop quality talent for the sector,” says Gill, underlining a vicious cycle of disappointment.

Despite the gloom and doom, some signs of slow change are afoot. Like the xlr8r makerspace at IIT-D, which fabricates its own battery-pack, motors and controllers for the EVs that it builds. Similarly, Team Chimera, an EV racing team housed at the Rashtriya Vidyalaya College of Engineering (RVCE), was one among 98 college teams to participate in the Formula Bharat national competition. At an institutional level, IIT-Chennai has launched the Centre of Battery Engineering (CoBE) with Ashok Leyland to work on new battery technology, and IIT-D signed an MoU with the Department of Science and Technology in February to launch a centre to work on clean energy solutions.

Beyond these, the relationship between research and talent development, an otherwise win-win cycle, is largely broken in India. But what about learning on the job?

Catch 22

Graduates in the auto industry usually undergo a six-month, rotational training programme. For newer projects, mid-tier management takes charge of new hires, thus perpetuating a cycle of learning and training. But in the newly-formed EV divisions within OEMs, such mid-tier talent is hard to come by. Manufacturers are plagued with the same cultural issues as universities and lack adequate time and resources for R&D, experimentation and providing exposure to new EV tech. Further, challenges that may seem controllable at an experimental stage often morph into huge issues at commercial scale.

One core engineering problem here is batteries. “You might understand how a single li-ion battery functions. But a battery 10x its size, which will be used in a car, will have completely different properties, and its reaction with the other components might be unstable. That’s why we need specialists. Overheating of batteries is a major challenge of Indian road conditions,” says Gupta of IIT-D. Maini concurs, adding that there is a real paucity of Indian auto engineers—who would know how to integrate, and balance systems like batteries, powertrains and motors in one composite whole.

“We invested a majority of our budget in R&D before even launching our product. Ather can’t afford to think like the legacy players in the market. Graduates don’t come trained in EV engineering, so we pick people from adjoining disciplines, like power electronics and software design. We use our resources creatively”

Tarun Mehta, co-founder, Ather Energy

This lack of R&D, says the founder of a young electric two-wheeler start-up, is a huge drawback, especially with upgrading talent. “The industry leaders didn’t want to shift to electric mobility. Sizeable investments, in IC-engine vehicles, are already locked in till 2025. But with the government’s policy push and global competition, the industry has suddenly woken up to a completely different reality. You can parachute foreign engineers in and hold 15-20 day trainings, but that will only work in the short run. There is no long-term plan,” adds the entrepreneur, who wished not to be identified.

However, OEMs like Tata Motors seems defiant in the face of these structural, and fundamental, challenges. In an email interaction with The Ken, Shailesh Chandra, president of Tata Motors’ electric mobility business, claimed they are nurturing talent through in-house classroom sessions with established experts of the EV domain.

“We are future-ready. Last year, we augmented our current strength of engineers in the EV domain by about 50 new people. At the same time, through various programs run internally and externally, we have up-skilled 350 existing staff at various levels in the organisation,” says an optimistic Chandra. Even though Tata seems confident in their training or up-skilling model, Chandra readily admits that it will be a “steep learning curve” for the industry, and that academia will have to “very quickly evolve courses”. Tata refrained from sharing any specific information about university tie-ups, citing pre-existing non-disclosure agreements.

Maruti Suzuki, which will officially launch an electric version of the WagonR in late 2019, declined to respond to The Ken’s questions due to “strategic reasons”. An engineer from their R&D team confided, anonymously, that Maruti’s EV division has picked up its pace of work in the last five months, testing prototypes at a huge scale. “But the core systems for these new models, especially hybrids, will be sourced from Suzuki, as will the talent. At least initially, to train mid-level staff,” he adds.

Choosing China

GM and Ford are moving their EV R&D efforts to China, which already has a strong homegrown supply-chain of EV components. China has also become a recruiting destination for top electrical engineering talent from across the world, including the US.

The IC-engine age was a time when Maruti did booming business, and in the 80s, catapulted India to first position globally in the small car market. Under the government’s Phased Manufacturing Plan (PMP), Indian OEMs like Maruti could tie-up with foreign partners (like Suzuki) to import technology. But the catch—and one that helped local talent development—was an assurance by the OEMs that they would localise the components within a few years. Maruti took this opportunity to train an entire gamut of local component suppliers and upgrade their skills. Better models and lower costs helped boost Maruti’s popularity and created an Indian auto components market for the first time. Both staff and the Tier-1 companies Maruti has partnered with were given the opportunity to learn from Suzuki’s new technology.

“When the market demands it, OEMs will have to align their ecosystem to this demand,” says Maini. But Gill, of SMEV, believes that the realpolitik of open, global markets may not allow the same to happen for Maruti’s EV play. “India is not going to take a step back into protectionist measures. The global market is too competitive. There might be a 5% levy on lithium imports under FAME-II, but beyond that, the Indian EV market is fair game for all global players,” says Gill. The open, competitive market, say industry experts, might leave an even smaller window for local talent development, encourage OEMs to cut down on R&D, and rely more on importing solutions from foreign tie-ups.

The Maruti engineer quoted earlier, who currently works in the IC-engine R&D team, plans to shift to the EV division by the end of this year. Except the area he’s really interested in pursuing—battery management systems for EVs—isn’t on Maruti’s radar right now. “I am training on my own time, with my own resources, and learning about batteries from scratch,” he says.

And there’s an avenue for self-training. Online.

EVs go online

If one can learn to fly planes online, why can’t they build electric cars?

Thankfully, this isn’t the flimsy logic that Akshay Gill’s first entrepreneurial venture—MakerMax—is built on. An ex-Tesla engineer, Gill co-founded MakerMax in Canada in 2016, and it has quickly become a popular online destination for EV training courses in India. There are other online portals too, like Udemy and DIYGuru, who offer foundational courses on electric mobility. Not just individual enthusiasts like the Maruti engineer, but even companies have enrolled their employees to get practical experience of working on EVs. “In our market assessment of Indian training programmes, we found that most companies were offering courses which gave a lot of basic information about batteries or motors in an EV, but no opportunities for actual skill development,” says Gill. MakerMax’s courses usually last about six months and come with a hardware practice kit and certification.

Gill and his counterparts at Udemy and DIYGuru have zeroed-in on a gap in the ecosystem—for short-term skill upgrades that both large and small OEMs can’t yet offer to their workforce. MakerMax is already training engineers within Mahindra’s electric division, and has partnered or is in talks with an impressive list of companies—Ashok Leyland, Maruti, Bosch, Napino Controls, Mahindra Electric, Tata and Kinetic. Gill and team have also been invited by two Indian universities to open up experiential workshops for EVs on their campuses. While he couldn’t reveal the names of the universities as final details are yet to be worked out, he added that India was the first country where MakerMax is launching these ‘lab experiences’. MakerMax currently has about 3,000 students, most of whom are concentrated in North America and western Europe. In addition to colleges, MakerMax has also found partners in small and medium-sized OEMs, who want a quick return on investment in the EV space. For smaller companies, says Gill, they are mostly parachuted in to solve immediate problems, whereas the larger OEMs have more time to put their engineers through a training programme.

But time isn’t exactly a friend in this long-ish process. The government is keen to speed it up. On 28 February, when FAME-II was announced, it triggered a second, and more urgent, push towards India’s 2030 target of 30% of the country’s vehicles being electric.

To meet these targets, investment in creating indigenous talent and research hubs can’t be an afterthought. “We are in an age where Industry 4.0 is going to require mechanical engineers to be proficient in software design as well as computer languages,” says Maini. Disruption by new technology is par for the course in the new world, but the Indian EV industry has to decide if our homegrown talent is going to drive ahead or stall.

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