Electric Vehicles have evolved significantly in the last 10-15 years, by constantly re-inventing themselves through experimental approaches.
Amey Pednekar, our next pathbreaker, works for a ride sharing start-up (Oye Rickshaw) that aims to make energy affordable for the E-rickshaw market through economical battery swapping technologies.
Amey talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his earliest experiences at Ather Energy that convinced him of the potential of Electric Vehicles which led him to explore different challenges in bridging the gap between technology and the real world.
For students, explore everything early on in your life. Even if you have identified your interests, don’t stop exploring. You might find something else that’s more interesting and you may even be good at it
Amey, can you tell us about your background?
I grew up in Mumbai, spent the initial 17 years of my life there before moving out. My father has been a Mumbaikar all his life while my mother is from Ahmedabad, both doctors. It’s usually expected that you would grow up to be a doctor, when both your parents are.
However, throughout my childhood, I had noticed how my father would rarely spend time at home as he was always with his patients. He’s had a great career undoubtedly, but I didn’t want to put my future family through the same experience. Moreover, I had a fascination for automobiles in general. I would always eagerly wait for that weekly AutoCar publication in ToI. So I knew I wanted to make a career in the automotive sector.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did an Integrated Bachelors (B.Tech) + Masters (M.Tech) in Engineering Design, with a major in Automotive Engineering from IIT Madras. I graduated in 2016.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I knew growing up that I would get into the Automotive sector. I was curious about how automobiles functioned, used to read a lot of magazines and also would sketch designs, although I wasn’t great at that.
I was aware that I wasn’t very creative/artistic but more rational/methodical in my approach, so engineering made more sense. Unfortunately, not a lot of colleges in India offer Automotive Engineering as a separate course. IIT Madras did, although not a specialized course, but better than most in India and hence the decision to write JEE and get in.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
The first step was obviously being aware of what I wanted, which through my childhood I was able to gain knowledge of.
Next was letting my parents know of it so I could have their support. Fortunately, my parents were not hung up on me pursuing medicine and that helped a lot.
Then came the research on what could help me pursue my interests. Like I mentioned earlier, I tried making a list of universities / colleges in India that were offering the course and then chose one that IIT Madras was offering. I didn’t give myself any other options, which in hindsight wasn’t a great idea.
Once I got into college is where things changed. I realized I had never explored what else I liked/interested me.
During the first 2 years of my college life, I tried a lot of different things, technical and non-technical. I explored robotics, dramatics, singing, graphic design, sports (hockey) as well as facilities (as part of our college cultural fest) which many believed was a fast track to a PoR (Position of Responsibility) like hostel/college secretary. Eventually I did realize, I was better at building a car than other things and honestly, it very easily could have not been the case.
This is probably one thing I would recommend to the younger generation, and that is to explore everything early on in your life. Even if you have identified your interests, don’t stop exploring. You might find something else that’s more interesting and you may even be good at it
It was in my 3rd year that I actively started engaging in activities more in line with building an automobile. I joined the ‘Auto Club’, was part of our Formula Student (FSAE) team and even interned with Ather Energy for 6 months (mandatory internship as part of the curriculum).
At Ather, I was part of the battery engineering team. Now this was in early 2015, when the electric vehicle (EV) development in India was in a nascent stage and we had no blueprint to follow. Ather was trying to develop every single system on their scooter from the ground-up, which made for an incredible learning experience for me as an engineer, especially since a lot of my work was hands-on. Probably my first exposure was to agile product development, as we developed half a dozen battery pack prototypes in half a year, in a bid to figure out what worked best for us. Without this exposure, I may never have entered the EV field.
I took this learning experience back to college and started a Formula Student Electric team. The idea did stem from an observation that Ather was struggling to find engineers, considering how nascent the market was. There wasn’t enough talent who had experience developing systems for an EV, colleges weren’t teaching this in their curriculum, which meant you could only learn on the job. I wanted to bridge this gap by trying to build an EV in college itself and I was already associated with FSAE, so combining them made sense. A lot of focus was around how to adapt a typical FSAE car as an electric vehicle and in the process, improving it relative to its engine counterpart, exactly what Ather and a couple of other start-ups were trying to do. The idea worked, as a couple of my team members, including myself, did eventually get placed in Ather and other companies working on EVs.
It was my time at Ather that made me interested in EVs & genuinely believe that they were better. I wanted to be a part of building one.
Later, I got placed at Bosch in 2016. The project was around building a hybrid electric powertrain for 2-wheelers which was definitely interesting and different to what I did at Ather.
My role was more around systems integration, how to make an electric powertrain work alongside an engine. The end problem statement was similar, making vehicles greener but the approach was obviously different. Being Bosch, I got a great exposure of the industry and how it works. Working with OEMs though comes with its share of limitations: less agile, longer timelines, bureaucracy etc. considering just how much process centric they are.
Additionally, during those 2 years at Bosch, I wasn’t convinced with the work we were doing, whether it had any long term impact. I had an habit & still do, of reading up on the new developments in the industry, and ‘Battery Swapping’ was the buzz back then, something that would help adoption of EVs in India quicker. Users could just ride into the nearest ‘swap station’ whenever low on charge, replace their discharged battery with a fully charged one, pay for it and done! Exactly similar to how we refuel our existing vehicles. It intrigued me, but there weren’t a lot of great start-ups/companies already, to work with, which made me try doing it myself along with some of my friends. I wanted to focus on mainly 2 & 3 wheelers, develop a system that could seamlessly work across both vehicle types. The idea was simple: a battery that could work cross platform, was manually swappable and a swapping station infrastructure to support the same. Most Indians don’t own a parking space, so charging your vehicle is a huge challenge.
However, without going into too many details, swapping by itself has its cons. It’s inefficient (need more batteries than there are vehicles), which makes it capital intense. The technology back then was too expensive to make swapping viable as a business. More importantly, I also realized I wasn’t cut out for it, I lacked the maturity to run a start-up. But I still wanted to develop products that would help solve everyday problems, which is where Bounce came into the equation.
Bounce is a 2-wheeler ride sharing company in Bangalore. They allow you to book a scooter from the app, which you can pick up and drop wherever you want to. Considering just how congested public transportation is and cabs (Ola/Uber etc.) aren’t economically viable as an everyday option, Bounce made sense. Oh, and did I mention, the scooters are keyless and completely operated via app, including opening the seat & turning the scooter ON! I joined them to help make this keyless system work. Bounce eventually also transitioned into making their own electric scooters, be it retrofitting their old petrol fleet or developing one from scratch and I got a chance to work on it.
Bounce is the best definition of ‘Try often, Fail fast’ approach. The focus was more on solving the problem, no matter how many times you failed doing it via different routes. This was the biggest takeaway for me and I am glad I worked with Bounce, because no other company in the automotive sector will give you this experience. It basically takes away the fear of failure, which is important when you are young. Unfortunately, Covid cut short my journey with Bounce and I had to move on.
How did you get your first break?
I had participated in campus placements, mainly applying to automotive and electronic product companies. Bosch was the very first company I interviewed with, got an offer and accepted it.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The biggest challenge for me at Bosch was me not knowing what path I wanted to take. I was in the sector of my interest, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an engineer or a manager. My role was more into Product management, but I wanted to stay true to my technical degree. I was never able to choose and eventually left after almost 2 years.
I joined Bounce, which was polar opposite to Bosch, in terms of the product being built and the working environment. Bounce was all about solving problems and doing them fast, rectifying the issues on the go, while Bosch was about building it correctly and only launching a near perfect product. Aside from the initial challenges of adjusting to the work environment, I also learnt that this made me more happy, solving problems on a regular basis and seeing them being implemented.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your role in Electric Mobility
I am working with Oye Rickshaw, based in Gurgaon. It’s a ride sharing start-up that partners with E-rickshaw drivers and recently entered the ‘Energy as a Service’ market as well.
What problems do you solve?
We are working on making energy affordable for the E-rickshaw market (special purpose battery operated vehicle having three wheels), which currently is massive, with around 2 million vehicles plying in India. The market relies on the ‘Lead acid’ batteries that were never designed for vehicles and hence, offer a lot of compromise. Li-ion batteries on the other hand have a lot of advantages but are expensive and we are trying to bridge this gap via the Battery swapping model.
What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?
I am heading the hardware product, which means overseeing the development of batteries, swapping stations and IoT. Being a product role, it needs a generalist, someone who understands how different products work & are built. What people call ‘Jack of all’ and it’s best if you are ‘Master of One’ as well.
I never really focused specifically on building the required skill set, per se. My ideology for the initial part of my career (~ 5 yrs) was to explore. Through my college years, I learnt how vehicles are built thanks to my stint with FSAE. At Ather, I worked on battery pack development. At Bosch, it was about integration, how different systems come together and function as one. At Bounce, I learnt how to solve problems on the go, given the pressure of time. All of these helped me get my current role. Even now, I am learning how to lead, this being my first such role, and a startup is the best place to learn it.
Honestly though, if there’s one thing I haven’t been exposed to, it is end-to-end development, where you take an idea and turn it into a successful product. This is another thing that my current job is helping me with, something I am sure will aid my career.
What’s a typical day like?
I call it ‘Firefighting’. Everyday revolves around solving live problems and ensuring that over a period of time, we stabilize the product and make it bug free. That involves prioritizing what to focus on, preparing a plan of action which could go wrong anytime and coordinating with multiple teams, with a single goal at the end of it.
However, some of my time also involves making long term plans, based on the strategy set by the top leadership. This would include product roadmaps and hiring, so we already have the right people when the time is right. Aside from this, there’s setting up processes in place. Being a startup, things can be random and it’s important that there’s a method to this madness.
What is it you love about this job?
The biggest attraction is the problem we are trying to solve. Making energy affordable is difficult, yet a necessary evil to solve, for electric vehicles to become mainstream in the long term. The Government of India is trying by introducing ever increasing subsidies which aren’t sustainable, and the problem can only be solved via products, which would anyway encompass a lot of different domains.
I also love the team I am working with, they are some of the best & most talented folks out there, from whom I learn a lot everyday.
How does your work benefit society?
India being a price sensitive market, needs products that fit that requirement without a significant compromise on function & quality. Existing products in the electric vehicle sector don’t, which is what we are trying to solve for. Our 2 & 3- wheelers account for the largest portion of the automotive market in India and helping accelerate their transition to electric, I believe is the good I am doing for the society in terms of reducing pollution.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
At Bounce, we had a lot of issues with our 1st generation product that allowed customers to book & ride the scooters. These were keyless scooters, so everything happened via the app and an OTP system (had to be entered on a keypad on the scooter). Overnight, a decision was made to move to the next generation rather than trying to stabilize the old product, hoping that would eliminate our existing issues. And it worked. The new product operated via Bluetooth, took us a month to develop & deploy. The joy when the first customer used it is something I will always remember. This system is still being used as of Aug’2021, almost 2 years later.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Don’t be in a hurry to succeed. It’s fine if you take some time to figure out what you really want. Keep your mind open and explore.
Your career growth depends on the value you add, not on the number of years on your resume. You will only add value if you love doing what you do.
Keep learning more about how to lead, more importantly, do it successfully in my existing company and build a kickass product over the next 2-3 years. I haven’t thought of what beyond that, but overall I aim to grow into a technical leadership role in the long term.