Ola Electric car is a premature pet project that won't run on hype alone

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#Ola, #Ola Electric Car, #Tesla, January 25, 2022

In a span of a year, Ola Electric has gone from being a promising upstart to a can’t-keep-a-promise startup whose grand plans seem rushed and poorly executed. After months of delay in deliveries of the S1 Pro scooter, coupled with the conspicuous absence of several advertised features, the public’s trust in brand Ola appears to be waning.

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Despite myriad logistical and technological issues plaguing Ola Electric’s maiden offering, CEO Bhavish Aggarwal has deemed it prudent to give us a glimpse into the brand’s next foray – electric cars. Although Aggarwal termed it a “secret” on his Twitter page, sharing a digital rendering of what a potential affordable electric vehicle bearing the Ola brand might look like, cars have very much been a part of the plan from the word go.

Can you guys keep a secret? pic.twitter.com/8I9NMe2eLJ

— Bhavish Aggarwal (@bhash) January 25, 2022

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When the electric scooters were launched in August 2021, everything appeared to be on schedule. A fully functional, production-ready EV by Ola in 2022 didn’t seem like a far-fetched idea. It does now.

So, Aggarwal’s plan to launch electric cars took many by surprise, to put it mildly. Many on Twitter were quick to remind Aggarwal that the brand’s key focus right now should be providing the features on the S1 Pro scooter that were promised to customers instead of building hype with yet another unfinished pipe dream.

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Can you simply improve built quality of scooter and deliver them first before telling us other secrets?

— Raxit Patel (@unretireme) January 25, 2022

Ola’s scooter, the S1, which continues to be plagued with weak deadlines and quality control issues, wasn’t built-from-scratch like the Ola Electric car is purported to be. In 2020, Ola acquired the Dutch e-scooter brand Etergo, whose exterior design and hardware formed the basis of the S1 scooter, with Ola providing software which it designed in-house.

Car, seriously?

Software continues to be missing key features such as cruise control, hill hold, voice activated features and visual “moods”. The other ace up Ola’s sleeve, which is local battery pack manufacturing, is yet to prove advantageous to the brand given the dispute surrounding the range claimed by the S1 Pro scooter.

Ola’s maiden car project, in theory, began on a sound footing. A budget EV offering is the need of the hour and the brand hired former Jaguar designer Wayne Burgess to head its electric car project out of its London (and Bengaluru) design studio.

But building an electric car from scratch —a far more complex automotive project than making a scooter—is a challenge Ola Electric doesn’t seem to be prepared for just yet.

Ola is yet to display any true in-house designing capabilities. And the fact that it’s having such a hard time ramping up production of a pre-designed scooter doesn’t bode well for its car-making aspirations.

Designing a mass-produced, affordable hatchback is one of the most challenging undertakings in the personal mobility space. Unlike a scooter, the safety parameters for car design are much higher with a vastly higher number of variables that need to be perfectly calibrated.

Ola is no Tesla

Unlike a scooter, a mass-produced four-wheeler must pass stringent safety tests. Taking a new car design from inception to assembly is a process that takes anywhere between three to five years for most reputed car brands.

Ola Electric intends to launch the car by mid-2023. Even a brand like Tesla based its first offering on an existing Lotus Elise chassis before launching its first, built-from-scratch product, the Model S, four years after the debut of the Roadster.

So exactly what parameters need to be kept in mind while making an EV? Electric vehicles are subjected to the same passive and active safety standards as fossil fuel engines, with a few extra requirements added to the protocol list. According to a research paper written by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US “safety precautions and inspections of the electrical systems have evolved to include post-crash checks for isolation of high voltage from the chassis”.

That apart, just like an ICE vehicle, EVs need to be tested for front and side crash along with roof strength test, vibration, thermal shock, mechanical impact, fire resistance, external short circuit protection, over and under-charge protection and over-temperature protection among other things.

Don’t forget supply chain

There’s also the supply chain issue, which needs to be optimised for four-wheeler production. Although this is much easier in the case of an EV, considering there are fewer moving parts, everything from the aluminium space frame, seat, wheels, body, underside need to be made using the lightweight-yet-durable material, especially for a budget EV hatch, with limited space for battery storage.

Thermal heat management, in a way that doesn’t drain the battery or reduce range and other extensive quality control measures need to be made before an EV is ready to begin camouflaged road tests. Prior to being field-tested on public roads, the car has to pass several reliability, safety and comfort tests, proving it can handle high-speeds and hard braking among other durability tests.

Automakers are constantly recording information about a car’s acceleration, braking and handling capabilities before a per-production prototype is ready. In keeping with the recent draft proposal by minister Nitin Gadkari, Ola will also need to keep the government’s six airbag mandate in mind.

Noise insulation, high and low-speed vibrations, buffeting winds, panel gaps, exposure to high and low temperatures are all aspects that mass-produced electric cars need to master before going into production. ESC, ABS, traction control and a host of other electronic safety nets will need to be present if the car is to secure a high Global NCAP safety rating, for adults and children.

Ola Electric entered the market on the promise of not just improving but revolutionising personal mobility in the country. The brand and its CEO’s penchant for hyperbole, which initially helped create a tidal wave of anticipation and hype, now appears to be working to its detriment, with customers clamouring for promised features and timely deliveries.

Ola’s launch-first-update-later approach, which has garnered much flak and even seen a fair number of cancelled bookings, certainly cannot work in the case of a car, where the competition from ICE vehicles and the array of features offered, is significantly higher. One must also consider the fact that Ola Electric is not the only one working on a low-cost EV.

Several legacy carmakers including Hyundai Motors – which has enjoyed an incredible hit rate in the ICE market – are prioritising low-cost EVs over all else. Others like Tata Motors are ready with platform agnostic EV powertrains and modular EV platforms that can be utilised for smaller, entry-level hatchbacks.

Cars are a different ballgame

Regardless, all brands have decades of automotive manufacturing experience which they can leverage against a neophyte like Ola. Where Ola can potentially surpass them is with its local battery production, battery management and software efficacy.

However, given the range discrepancies brought-up by its scooter customers and the prolonged absence of software features in privately-owned, production scooters the brand is yet to prove that it’s capable of delivering on its potential strengths.

For now, Ola’s priority should be ironing-out the creases in its delivery and production schedule. For a brand whose statements are almost constantly at odds with reality, getting the basics right should be the obvious way forward.

A curious-looking EV rendering is an effective bauble to dangle in front of investors, but the only thing that will build the brand is a solid (read: finished) product and transparency in operations.

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