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Bengaluru-based Cell Propulsion is on a mission to make EV solutions more viable for intra-city commercial vehicle fleets. Led by former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) engineers, this start-up was among the first cohort of India’s first-ever accelerator programme by accelerator Huddle and venture capital firm growX ventures.
Nakul Kukar, Co-founder and CEO, Cell Propulsion, set up the company alongside Paras Kaushal and Supratim Naskar. Prior to Cell Propulsion, Kukar and Kaushal worked at ISRO on its launch vehicle engines.
Subsequently, they worked with an aerospace start-up on the design and development of a solar-powered electric aircraft.
“While working on the electric aircraft project, we realised that there is a massive opportunity in India in the electrification of ground vehicles. Given the good understanding of EV technology and experience of managing complex technology projects, we decided to initiate this venture,” says Kukar.
Cell Propulsion started full time operations in 2017 with the goal of designing and producing electric commercial vehicles (eCVs).
“During the initial years, we were involved in design and development of core technology and powertrain components like battery packs, BMS, motors, drives, etc. Subsequently we worked on integrating all these individual components to become powertrain systems for eLCV and eHCV applications. Our initial goals were to sell eCVs to logistics companies but upon realising various systemic challenges involved with adoption of eCVs, we began focusing on building the complete eco-system to enable seamless adoption of eCVs,” he says.
The logistics sector in India brings with itself quite a few opportunities that make it, for a company like Cell Propulsion, an attractive space to be operating in. The company is focused on creating and deploying solutions for goods mobility and building its support infrastructure in India, providing connected, electric solutions to re-define cargo delivery in the country.
“In India, the goods carrier segment is responsible for the highest amount of vehicle usage leading to the highest amount of emissions too, among all road transport segments. This makes the CV segment ideal for leading the transition to electric and also makes for a strong business case.
“Since last year, constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have also resulted in a structural shift in buying behaviour, with an increasing number of customers and enterprises turning to online platforms. Along with the government’s drive for electric vehicles, fleet operators, delivery companies and logistics firms have also created a distinct demand for electric vehicles. While these enterprises benefit from lower operating costs, electrification of their fleets also helps them meet their climate goals,” explains Kukar.
“With the middle-mile and last-mile delivery ecosystem expanding by leaps and bounds, transitioning to electric vehicles (EVs) has become a necessity to address environmental problems related to vehicular emissions. Although the large electric cargo vehicle segment is only getting started, it is expected that it will soon dominate the retail market due to its high practicality for light loads, improved mileage, and reduced maintenance costs,” he says.
Moreover, the company also boasts of a pilot project conducted with Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC), which Kukar calls a “great learning experience” and has subsequently led to the eBus going proceeding to road testing, following which relevant certifications will be complete by the coming year.
It’s developing a host of solutions to support the complete life-cycle of its eCVs.
“These services and solutions are part of an end-to-end support eco-system which enables seamless transition to electric for our customers. Some of the key solutions being offered by us are connectivity and digital services and products; charging infra and energy management; operational & maintenance support and OTA updates for performance upgrades,” says Kukar.
“The recent surge in fuel prices makes eCVs even more lucrative due to much better TCO economics.”
As our conversation progressed, I asked Kukar about his thoughts on retrofitting, which seems like a fantastic solution for the cost-conscious and value-seeking Indian market.
“Retrofitting is a stop gap solution to explore EV solutions at a lower risk and lower cost than investing into much more expensive new EVs. Moreover, retro-fitting is also a more sustainable alternative to vehicle scrapping as we can extend the life of older vehicles by a few more years by converting them to electric.”
“Specifically for the CV segment, we see retro-fit eCVs as the right solution for the next few years as there is no FAME subsidy available for eCVs yet and also no branded new eCVs are available in the market. We believe that in the meantime, customers can begin their exploration of eCVs and associated intricacies by using retro-fitted eCVs,” he adds.
According to Kukar, the rapidly rising fuel prices has hit the Indian logistics sector hard, which makes Cell Propulsion and its offerings seem quite lucrative to this sector in particular.
“In India, more than 80% of freight is moved by CVs and hence their large-scale electrification will help reduce diesel consumption to such an extent that fuel price fluctuations will stop impacting the price of goods for end consumers; besides reducing India’s diesel import requirements. CVs are the largest source of vehicular pollution, due to their low mileage diesel engines and also due to the way they are driven. Their electrification will also have a massive impact on air pollution and air particulate levels. Hence the recent surge in fuel prices makes eCVs even more lucrative due to much better TCO economics,” says Kukar.
He expects stronger growth for the eCV segment in coming months, and much more customer interest and demand.
“In its current state; the charging infrastructure is a cause for concern,” he adds, speaking of potential roadblock of the lack of charging infrastructure in India. However, CVs have fixed routes of operation with known route lengths.
“Hence eCVs can be designed for a specific range and chargers can also be installed at strategic locations. A city-wide charging infra is not necessary. At Cell Propulsion, we are creating this strategically located charging infrastructure and energy management services for heavy/ light commercial electric vehicles.”
“Moreover, growing interest from state governments in the form of various EV policies paint a progressive picture for the future of EVs in India. As part of these conversations, converting petrol pumps into EV charging stations is picking-up pace and that’s the kind of change we need in the infrastructure to make 100% electric mobility a reality in this country,” he adds.
Finally, I asked what the future looks like for the company.
“We intend to expand our commercial operations outside of Bangalore in the near future. We are actively deploying our vehicles with some large logistics companies in Bangalore. We’ll start working with these customers in other Tier-1 and metropolitan cities also where they operate LCVs. To develop our charging infrastructure, we are partnering with financing institutions, insurance companies, solar firms, and DISCOMS (energy companies).
“To execute and achieve these goals, we’ll be growing our production capacity and recruiting across all business and engineering divisions,” concludes Kukar.