In a quiet industrial estate next to Bengaluru’s swanky Phoenix MarketCity Mall in Whitefield, is a small garage that houses a car, a couple of rickshaws, a workbench scattered with tools and a wall lined with battery packs and controllers. This is the workspace occupied by Altigreen Propulsion Labs, a startup that makes electric powertrains for existing vehicles and custom solutions for OEM engine manufacturers.
“We started thinking about this in 2011,” says Amitabh Saran, the CEO at Altigreen, who worked with some big names like Philips, HP and NASA before re-evaluating his priorities. “According to publicly available information, of the 1.2 million people who die early in India, about 25% cases are said to be linked to poor air quality as a result of road transport. That’s three lakh people, which is a huge number, and it is something we brought upon ourselves.” Saran decided that the electric powertrain business was the way to go, so he brought on board experts on the subject and started work.
The big challenge was developing something that fit India’s requirements. Existing powertrains, such as those found in high-end hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are not tuned for Indian drive profiles
Altigreen decided on a two-pronged approach. It developed a 48V hybrid solution, HyPixi, that can be retrofitted on to an existing vehicle, to convert it into a hybrid and provide a claimed 20-25% efficiency increase. It has also been collaborating with OEMs to help them develop hybrid and full electric engines for their own products. Greaves Cotton is one such, and a resulting product, an electric three-wheeler, was displayed at the Auto Expo in Greater Noida earlier this year.
While the OEM engines are expected to hit markets within the next two years, HyPixi is the first step in what Saran views as the long process of getting India to go green. “There are 25 to 30 million internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles on the road that cannot just be wished away, even if you have a scrap policy. They’re going to be around for the next 10 or 15 years, so what you can do is electrify them. HyPixi can be retrofitted to vehicles under two tonnes, regardless of displacement.”
The hybrid solution uses regenerative energy, harvesting energy otherwise wasted during activities like deceleration and braking (similar to the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems employed in Formula One and existing high-end hybrids), to generate power which it can then deploy to aid the regular combustion engine. This approach, which requires no external charging, was a key point in the company’s plan. “Upto 81% of India’s electricity is produced by burning coal, and hybridisation should be about providing a green benefit as much as an economic benefit. Which is why we didn’t want a solution that requires charging from the grid. If I’m charging from an electric power source that is just burning fuel somewhere else, I’m just shifting the problem,” Saran explains.
The company has been running long-term pilots since 2016, testing the system in variable conditions. For the moment, the target buyers are in the commercial space: fleet owners who have ailing vehicles that could use a new lease of life and increased efficiency.
Saran has no illusions that making a great product alone is a guarantee for success. “Our retrofit does not require additional maintenance, and while most of the commercial vehicles we’re testing with are already out of warranty, we’ve also tied up with third-party providers who will take over warranty. We’ve done the same with insurance companies and financiers, who will offer loans for financing the retrofit. There is no point in saying ‘Here is a product; buy it. Any problems associated with it are not my responsibility.’ You have to deliver the entire ecosystem.”
Altigreen is targeting 2019 for when HyPixi will be available for everyone. They have tied up with third-party sales and service channels to set up a nationwide network for installing the powertrain, which, does not require additional maintenance. Nor does it hamper the functioning of the regular engine, so drivers can continue travelling even in the event of a powertrain failure. The entire system involves a small component under the hood and a battery and controller in the boot, which can remain completely hidden. Inside the cabin, drivers get a GPS-enabled unit that provides useful information based on the data gathered by the system’s sensors. Users can expect to pay between ₹60,000 and ₹90,000 for a standard fitment, with the cost going up to around ₹1.2 lakh for the more advanced lithium ion tech instead of traditional lead acid batteries.
“When you hear electric, there are people who immediately think ultimate performance and supercharging stations. Let’s do it in stages. It’ll take time for incumbents to change track, and governments to move from providing subsidies that encourage importing motors that don’t fit Indian spec to encouraging local production instead. But it’s up to us as a startup to say that it can be done and then do it,” he says, summing it up with, “We’re not in the transportation business, we’re in the peace-of-mind business.”