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Ex-Tesla Employee Trying to Make Indian Autorickshaws 100% Green

Zero 21 Renewable Energy Solutions, a startup in Hyderabad founded by ex-Tesla employee Rani Srinivas, makes affordable electric kits to convert old petrol/CNG autorickshaws in 3 hours.

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In December 2021, the Delhi government had empanelled six manufacturers of electric kits to convert old petrol and diesel vehicles that cannot ply on city roads into electrical vehicles (EVs). These kits have been approved by the International Centre for Automotive Technology (ICAT), a testing certification, research and development agency.

Among the six manufacturers are Hyderabad-based Zero 21 Renewable Energy Solutions, a startup that has developed the ReNEW Conversion Kit. This e-kit helps both diesel and CNG-powered three-wheelers make the transition to electric. Founded in late 2017 by ex-Tesla Motors employee Rani Srinivas, the startup’s mission is to leverage “emerging technologies and skilled expertise to offer a wide range of battery powered three-wheelers”.

(Image above of ex-Tesla employee Rani Srinivas, who founded Zero 21 Renewable Energy Solutions)

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Coming back to India

A native of Hyderabad, Srinivas (49) comes with nearly 26 years of corporate experience across 20 countries, working on business process optimisation and enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation projects in locations as diverse as the Suez Canal and Salalah Port.

In 2014, however, he settled down in the United States working for Tesla Motors as an IT manager, overseeing the software side of production, among other things. His work profile here also included coordinating with the shop floor and production planning, which helped him garner an understanding of material procurement, the production, and supply chain processes.

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“After working at Tesla for nearly three and a half years, I wanted to come back to India and venture into the electrification of the three-wheeler segment to address air and noise pollution. The biggest learning at Tesla was their outstanding technology. It’s simple, but such a differentiating factor. Their process and technology, which is so easy to maintain, reduces air and sound pollution in vehicles,” says Srinivas, speaking to The Better India.

According to a Statista survey, “a majority of the urban dwellers, at about 70 percent, across India travelled less than 10 km for work and education.”

“Given the ubiquity of three-wheelers in facilitating such commutes, and the fact that they are among the most economical means of transportation, it became apparent to me that the EV technology popularised by the likes of Tesla was an urgent requirement here,” adds Srinivas.

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By the end of 2017, he arrived in India and established Zero 21 Renewable Energy Solutions. For Srinivas, the term Zero 21 refers to ‘Zero air and sound pollution in the 21st century’. By the start of 2018, he began working on the venture’s first product, the Smart Mule.

“This commercial transport vehicle can last up to 10 years. The Smart Mule can carry loads up to 350-400 kg. Powered by a 130 (160) Ah lithium ferrous phosphate (LFP) battery, it offers a range of 120-130 km on a single charge under any road conditions with 200 traffic stops, peak power of 2000W and top speed of 30 kmph. Our customers include companies offering last mile delivery of cooking gas, water cans, items from mom and pop shops, and e-commerce companies. We have also developed our Smart Mule passenger vehicles used by commuters in Hyderabad from metro stations to their residences, offering last mile connectivity. Irrespective of road conditions, they offer a stable ride. Our next iteration of the Smart Mule is the Smart Mule X. On the verge of completion, it has a capacity of carrying a 1-tonne payload and will receive certification within two to three months,” explains Srinivas.

Zero 21 electric autorickshaws manufactured by ex-Tesla employee's startup
Zero 21, a startup founded by ex-Tesla employee Rani Srinivas, has come up with the Smart Mule electric three-wheeler

Conversion Kit

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Given the growing Indian EV revolution, it’s imperative to ask what happens to the many existing IC-engine vehicles? This is where the important topic of retrofitting electric vehicles comes in.

“By adding new vehicles, aren’t you creating greater traffic congestion? You are not curtailing pollution unless and until you’re limiting the number of vehicles on the road. The only way forward for existing IC-engine or CNG-powered vehicles is to convert it. The Delhi government has to put its foot down on converting old vehicles into EVs because more vehicles on the road will add to our problems. India has millions of auto rickshaws. Unless you start converting them, we will not be able to achieve our goal of having EV sales accounting for 30% of private cars, 70% for commercial vehicles, and 80% for two- and three-wheelers by 2030,” says Srinivas.

The process of converting a three-wheeler from CNG/diesel to electric using its ReNEW Conversion Kit doesn’t take more than 3-4 hours. The process basically involves removing the engine, gearbox, diesel or CNG tank and installing a controller, motor and battery back.

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“Once it undergoes the conversion process, the electric three-wheeler offers peak power between 5.5 kWh to 8 kWh and top speed of 50 kmph. The battery pack comes with three-year warranty and works under swappable and fixed systems. We are offering two LFP battery pack options to our customers — 130 Ah and 200 Ah. The 200 Ah battery will offer a range not less than 130 to 140 km on a single charge with an approved battery management system (BMS) with geo-fencing capabilities, etc. Meanwhile, the 160 Ah LFP battery will offer a range of 100 to 110 km on a single charge. This range is suitable for auto rickshaw drivers,” claims Srinivas.

Once it undergoes conversion, the three-wheeler takes about 3-4 hours to fully charge, utilising eight to 10 units of electricity. Alongside the electric conversion kit, Zero 21 also offers a 40 amp charger. The battery range will suffice given how auto rickshaw drivers in Chennai, for example, travel a daily average distance of 100 km, notes the Centre for Public Policy and Research.

“Today, every auto driver spends anywhere between Rs 4.65 and Rs 5.50 per km, which we want to reduce to Rs 1.20 Rs 1.50 per km with capital expenditure. This reduction will make a considerable difference to auto drivers. We want to make that difference,” he adds.

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Zero 21 Electric Passenger autorickshaws made by Ex-Tesla employee
Ex-Tesla employee Srinivas’ startup Zero 21 has launched Smart Mule passenger electric autorickshaws

Zero 21 began developing this conversion kit in 2018. It took them a couple of years to develop it because as a small venture they couldn’t afford to make any mistakes with their product. Also, back then, they sourced most major components from China. Srinivas claims that this is no longer the case with major components like motors and controllers sourced locally.

“I’m not here to make a quick buck, but to make a considerable difference. We utilised the COVID-19 period for further research and development on the positive side, even though it delayed the launch of our conversion kit. Except for the battery cells, which we import, the ReNEW Conversion Kit is a total ‘Make in India’ product. The e-conversion kit costs Rs 65,000 and the choices for fixed battery pack are given. If they go for the 200 Ah battery pack, it entails an extra cost of Rs 1,20,000, for which we have financing options. Of course, the auto driver does not have to pay us the full amount for conversion. A downpayment of say Rs 10,000 or Rs 20,000 will work, and we’ll convert it for them,” he claims.

Once the conversion process is done, as and when the driver charges the vehicle, they can pay the rest like an EMI or postpaid bill. “We have small software installed, which is backed by an app on the phone. This app facilitates the charging process. If you don’t pay your EMI in the fourth month of operating it, the charging port won’t enable itself. Any subsidy offered by the state government on paying for this kit and battery pack will be applicable as well,” adds the ex-Tesla employee.

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So far, Zero 21 is a bootstrapped venture, which is now open to raising funding. Srinivas only sought funding after attaining some modicum of success and understanding the market. Today the venture supplies vehicles to Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Chandigarh and Karnataka and Maharashtra. Their vehicles have been on the road for the past 1.5 years.

“For far too long, three-wheelers have been deprived of significant technological improvements, and we’re looking to change that with our team of 16 employees and a manufacturing plant in Hyderabad where we can manufacture about 15 e-rickshaws a day. Later this week, we will appoint dealers to distribute our e-conversion kits in Delhi,” he says.

(Edited by Divya Sethu)

Sources:

1) ‘Length of daily commute by urban dwellers across India in 2019’- Statista

2) ‘Study on the Autorickshaw Sector in China’- Centre for Public Policy and Research

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