Three sparks and a fire: Ola Electric’s and Bhavish Aggarwal’s reputations are being tarnished by their decisions.

Vythiri Village Resort in Wayanad, Kerala, is surrounded by greenery. It was a good place for the Ola group’s senior product managers to spend two days, from Friday, March 25 onwards.

Ola Swarg was the name of the event. People who worked hard were supposed to get a reward from the company’s founder, Bhavish Aggarwal, at some point over the weekend.

ceo bhavish aggarwal hints about an ola electric car, soon to launch in india | newstrack english 1

A scooter caught fire in Pune on Saturday, and Ola‘s product managers were working on it at the time. They were all wearing black T-shirts, and this is what you’d expect: The fire soon spread to social media.

The mood in the room changed quickly. Aggarwal did not show up, and he was putting out a fire that would ruin everything they had worked for.

Ola was supposed to be the company that made electric mobility more common. It was supposed to go from being a yuppie lifestyle choice in a few cities to being a real option for people all over the country.

There were fires at both of these electric-scooter companies. They’re being investigated by the Center for Fire, Explosive and Environmental Safety (CFEES), which is part of the Defense Research and Development Organization. This group is looking into both companies (DRDO).

When a good product caught fire last, it was 2010. The product was called Tata Nano. That, and other incidents of the car going up in flames, made Ratan Tata’s project less appealing to many people.

Besides memes and jokes about the fire, Ola has had to deal with many complaints about the quality and delivery of its service in the age of social media. Even though they spent a lot of money trying to control the narrative through aggressive PR and social media marketing. In early September 2021, one of the daily news had written about the specific problems that Aggarwal would have to deal with to live up to the hype. It looks like he hasn’t done it yet.

Because it came from somewhere else.

To understand why Ola is in such a mess, it’s essential to look back at some of the big decisions that have been made over the last few years. Three of these decisions are directly linked to Ola’s mess.

Spark #1: Making a quick switch from batteries that can be swapped out.

Easy: Bhavish Aggarwal bought the Dutch company Etergo to use for his Appscooter, which was a quick way out. Earlier, we talked about how he came to this decision. It meant that he didn’t have to spend much time making a scooter from scratch. European design: He was able to focus on growing the company as quickly as he wanted rather than spend time and money on a blank piece of paper.

If you make a two-wheeled electric vehicle, you have to make a critical and essential choice: whether to use an electric battery or one that can be removed. The Appscooter had three battery modules that could be removed, and each battery module had 1155Wh of battery power.

In the beginning, there was a lot of excitement about Ola going electric, which made it seem like the Appscooter would have removable batteries in India. Before Etergo, Ola’s main focus was on batteries that could be switched out. Ola Mobility Institute, an in-house think tank, even came up with a joint resolution in 2019 that called for government incentives for people to switch out their cars’ batteries. Aggarwal had tweeted his school’s explanation.

During that time, someone in Ola said that the “cube-shaped battery pack with a handle” had been tested inside the company. It was less than 11 kg. During the trip, it could go 75 km and reach 75 km/h.

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Ola tried it out on three-wheelers in Delhi for six months in hot and cold weather, and it worked well. It didn’t matter that there were no problems with the project, so Aggarwal scrapped it. ET Prime talked to people who said that Aggarwal didn’t think battery swapping would make the brand look like a high-end company.

There was also another goal in Aggarwal’s head. He wanted to hit a marketing double century, with a range of 100 km and a top speed of 100 km per hour. Then, the battery would be much heavier, weighing almost 16 pounds, making it more difficult for people to carry around and change.

A lot of work and testing from Ola Electric’s early days had to be put aside for the new plan: a non-removable battery pack with more power and range. It also meant that the Appscooter had to be re-engineered and re-packaged so that the batteries couldn’t be removed.

While this was going on, Aggarwal was getting impatient. In 2019, based on a plan to start a company in electric mobility, he had raised $250 million at a billion-dollar value.

After trying many different things, he decided to buy Etergo in late 2020 to get his electric car project going. He told the investors what he would do and tried to get more money from them. This time, investors asked Aggarwal to show that electric cars were popular in India.

That made it essential to start right away. In mid-2021, Aggarwal said that pre-ordering Ola e-scooters at INR499 would be available at that price during an extensive digital campaign. Amidst high fuel prices, the market’s mood was clear from the 500,000 pre-bookings that were made. A carefully planned story about the world’s largest scooter factory, a women-only shop floor, and even a project to make electric cars helped fund the company. There were a lot of funds raised for Ola Electric, which made the company’s value rise from USD2.5 billion to USD5 billion in just a few months.

Engineers had to do a lot more work while all this was going on.

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 Spark #2: The battery management question.

A battery-management system (BMS) is essential for electric cars because it decides how the battery can be charged and how it can be used. The algorithms that figure this out get their information from sensors all over the battery pack, and they look at data about how much heat is being made and take steps to fix it.

Active cooling systems use a fan to help dissipate the heat made. This is similar to how laptops use small fans to make airflow that cools down the insides when they get too hot. Passive cooling doesn’t need any extra hardware, and it moves heat out of the room through conductive materials that move the heat away or by having natural cooling through the air, which carries the heat away.

In this case, it’s cheaper and more energy-efficient, but engineers say it might not be the best way to keep going for a long time, especially in hot places.

The heat itself doesn’t have to start a fire, but it speeds up battery deterioration and expansion, which changes the circuitry and causes short circuits that start fires.

Ola could choose from three different things here.

It thought about making its battery-thermal-management system, but it could also use third-party software. Using software from another company but making it look like your own was a third way.

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There are a lot of different stories about what happened next.

People who work for the company say that it has used its own BMS in all the scooters that have been built and delivered. Some people say that Ola may have thought about using a third-party solution for the first batches of their scooters because its own BMS was not ready in time.

A source told me that BMS bought from outside vendors was “costing a lot of money.” Aggarwal also had to show that the company was making its technology, which was what investors wanted to see. This made things more complicated.

On the eve of the launch, it’s not ideal to make this critical decision, and it doesn’t leave enough time to test and gather data on both software. Engineers tell ET Prime that the most important thing about a BMS is that it works well in all kinds of weather, from extreme heat to extreme cold, so it works well with the hardware. These machine-learning algorithms need a lot of data to work well.

This fire is about not trying out different things. Extensive testing is hazardous and takes a long time. People who make cell phones will be able to help you, and you will need to record the cell parameters. Based on that, the BMS is made better. According to a source, the algorithm can’t do very much if that isn’t well-recorded.

According to Ola, it has passed “a series of rigorous tests in a wide range of riding and weather conditions for almost a million km.”

What’s the best way out? In the past, one person who worked for Ola Electric said that this could be solved by installing over-the-air (OTA) updates that are meant to keep things from overheating. “But that could also lead to big changes in performance and range.” This could also cause more problems with the car’s performance, like when the power goes out while driving the vehicle.

Engineer: The company hasn’t started sending out OTA updates for tech features like voice control and moods, which it had promised at the scooter’s launch, let alone updates that would change the way the scooter behaves. This is an essential thing to remember! Sources tell ET Prime that starting OTA updates has become more critical at Ola because the first batch of scooters haven’t had to deal with the worst of the Indian summer yet.

An insider says that after they figure out what caused the fire, they will decide whether to recall or fix the BMS over the air. In this case, the BMS missed a situation where the fire could start.

“No one, not even Bhavish, can change the laws of thermodynamics,” the CEO of a company that makes electric cars said.

Spark #3: There is a lot of turnover in staff.

Aggarwal might even have been able to do it all if he had been able to keep the people who worked on the project and the people who worked with other vendors. Both have been moving since the beginning.

This is how it went: In the second week of July 2019, Bhavish Aggarwal came into the Ricardo Plc office in London. He had already been a little cranky. His trip to Manchester’s Old Trafford saw India fall 13 runs short of the target set by New Zealand and lose to New Zealand in a cricket World Cup match.

For the finals of Ola London, he gave away all of the tickets he had bought for them. The next meeting with Ricardo Plc, hired to help design the battery system and car design for Ola Electric, was just as bad. He thought the engineering-consulting firm was too slow, sources say. He came back to India with the decision to end the contract.

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That led to many people changing jobs and becoming consultants again and again. It’s not easy to run a show when you have to meet a strict timetable. Sources say that internal teams have changed a lot since the start.

This has led to a lack of continuity in essential functions, and some important positions have even been empty. The most obvious is the chief technology officer position, which was left open after Roger Looney left.

Ola has had a hard time keeping employees in the past, as we talked about in an earlier story. ET Prime has spoken about this a lot before. Here, here, here, and here are some of them. At least eight people who work for Ola Electric have only worked there for five to 11 months. They work in essential roles like vehicle tech and battery tech and have a lot of responsibilities like human resources, finance, and sales, but they have only worked there for a short time.

Finally, Priteesh Mahajan is the last of Ola Electric’s essential people to leave. In September of last year, Mahajan became vice president of Ola, and he was with the company for just six months, and Mahajan has been with ABB for 22 years.

One of the people who run an electric ecosystem in Bengaluru says that he has been getting emails from people who work at Ola Electric about jobs over the last few months. So much so that he says that many of his top employees were hired this way. This is what he says.

This doesn’t look good for developing essential parts and systems and the manufacturing process itself. There were also problems on the assembly line, from software issues to issues with circuitry. The first batch of products had some problems.

Then what?

A person who worked with Aggarwal said that the founder of Ola Electric wants the company to be worth $60 billion in the next three years. That is a huge goal, and it will be hard to reach. It doesn’t matter what people say about him right now because he wants to get more money at about $10 billion. A new cell-manufacturing plant has just been announced, and this plant is part of the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme.

In Okinawa, a scooter went up in flames. On the other hand, Ola Electric is seen as the best example of electric mobility in the country because of its high valuation and lofty goals. It’s been a long time since we saw Spiderman, but

The government, too, is worried about what is going on in the world. It’s a big goal for the Union government to get India off of fossil fuels and into electric vehicles. There is a fear that more cars will start to catch fire, which led to the announcement of an investigation right away.

Both of these situations need to be precise. Ola Electric and the government should make the findings of their investigation and the changes they are making public so that people can learn what happened and make sure this doesn’t happen again.

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