Indian EV category’s unlikely inspiration: e-commerce

Recently, Vish Ganti, VP of Product Management & GM at AutoGrid India, a software company that operates in the clean energy space, had shared on LinkedIn about his experience of taking his electric scooter to his 5th-floor apartment through the elevator and charge it in the kitchen!

While I’m surprised that his apartment association didn’t fine him for taking a heavy item in the elevator (I’m being sarcastic here), the reason for his jugaad was that his apartment association didn’t allow him to install an electric charger (linked to his apartment’s meter) at the parking area.

The Times of India report has some extra details where the manager of the apartment complex is quoted saying that Vish doesn’t even have covered parking and hence giving him a charging point was not feasible. And that they are considering setting charging points in the future because only 3 (out of 300) residents have electric vehicles. Of the 3, 2 have vehicles with swappable batteries and they simply remove the battery to charge it at their home!

Beyond the specifics of Vish’s experience, there is a much larger context at play here.

The current communication by almost all the electric vehicle makers, 4-wheeled and 2-wheeled, is primarily around availability, price, and range (mileage-equivalent of EVs).

In April 2019, Niti Aayog published a report titled ‘India’s Electric Mobility Transformation’ that pegs EV sales penetration in India at about 70% for commercial cars, 30% for private cars, 40% for buses, and 80% for two-and three-wheelers, by 2030. I’m fairly sure the numbers would seem different now, in 2021, but given the largest potential demand in the 2-and-3-wheeler segments, there is a broader need to sort the charging infrastructure while trying to sell vehicles.

E-rickshaws are the largest segment right now—though large parts of this market are still unorganized and based on lead-acid batteries—in terms of ownership and usage, and considering they are the B2B equivalent and can make institutional arrangements, let us look past that segment. Almost all 2-wheeler EV brands that advertise heavily and announce launches with pomp and glamor merely glaze over the charging question. It almost seems like they take charging for granted as if they are selling a petrol bike where the petrol station situation has been sorted long ago and can be taken for granted.

For 2-wheeled EVs, a major part of the charging is bound to be at the buyers’ homes. And not every buyer has an independent house with the convenience of fixing their own charging point at the parking area. Apartment parking areas are bound to be a huge location for parking and charging 2-wheeled EVs. With that comes experiences like Vish’s.

A potential buyer needs to look beyond price, availability, and range… to a very basic question: how and where can I charge my EV comfortably?

Ola’s much-hyped electric scooter has a non-removable battery, unlike the Revolt bike (more on the launch of both vehicles) that comes with swappable battery technology.

So, one big consideration if you decide to buy an Ola scooter is to plan your charging point in your parking area in the apartment you stay in. Along with it, the related questions and decisions:
Can I connect that charger to my flat’s electricity meter?
If not, and if it is connected to the building’s common area meter, how would the bill be apportioned?
What if someone else uses my charging facility, openly available at the parking area in my apartment, and the bill for my flat goes up?
… and so on.

To some extent, the Indian Government has been thinking in the right direction in terms of changing building by-laws and the master plan to suit EV charging, but not much has changed on the ground.

The chicken-and-egg situation reminds me of another industry that stared at a tough future because multiple areas were broken to make it work: e-commerce!

For the longest time, Indian e-commerce was languishing because the players presumed that it can be run with the existing infrastructure – courier service and credit cards. But that was not to be, and the early adopters may remember the horrible days of Indian e-commerce pioneered by Rediff and Indiatimes.

And then came Flipkart!

Flipkart was perhaps the first and only e-commerce brand that I would credit with thinking about their category and not just about their brand.

After their first ad campaign, featuring the grandma and the mouse, bombed (understandably), they took a different direction.

The idea then was to look at the reasons why people may not consider e-commerce – this can be summed up in one sentence: “Can I trust this faceless shop online?”. That ‘trust’ had multiple dimensions:
– can I trust what I’m seeing in terms of the product catalog?
– can I trust this website with my credit card? Oh wait, I don’t even have a credit card!
– can I trust this website to pay online from my bank account?
– can I trust this site to deliver my product? What if there’s something wrong with it? Who do I speak to, then?
– can I trust the site to deliver in time? If not, what can I do?
– can I trust the site to do something about my product going wrong after I have bought it?

Some of these ‘trust’ questions are beyond the purview of Flipkart (like product-related issues after purchase), but largely, they were responsible for Indians trusting e-commerce as a mode of retail. That they were also the most funded at that point in time helped.

So, Flipkart’s product-level innovations and marketing-level communications were several layers above brand-building alone – they were thinking of creating the entire category from scratch.

To infuse trust in the product catalog, the assuredness of delivery, and the safety of paying online, they had multiple series of ad campaigns, featuring both the kids-as-adults theme as well as normal ads. These ads framed Flipkart as the equivalent of online buying and communicated featured intended to evince trust, 30-day replacement guarantee, original products, and best prices.

Even though these were Flipkart-centric features, the framing in the communication was speaking about ‘online shopping’ and how doubtful people are about that.

At a product level, Flipkart took Indiaplaza’s idea of cash-on-delivery and scaled it considerably as a way to infuse trust in payments – the idea mirrored payment-on-delivery that we were already used to, but not with e-commerce.

The communication from Flipkart at that time tackled every single preconceived notion people had back then about online shopping, including framing it as being so easy that it was ‘child’s play’ (the reason for the kids-as-adults series) and showing that even older people trust it (as a way to inform the younger lot that if they can trust it, so can you).

What the EV industry needs is a category-building effort, not just individual brand building and brand sales. These two are totally different industries and situations, but the similarities in terms of gaps are identical.

Both e-commerce of the early 2010s and the EV industry of now have several things in common:
– a poorly developed and untrustworthy infrastructure – digital payment, last-mile delivery for e-commerce; charging infrastructure, battery standards, and interoperability for EVs
– as a result, less convincing as a value proposition for both categories
– the existing system was perceived to be good enough to not jump into a new way of doing things – offline retail was adequate enough when e-commerce started in India, and the petrol/diesel-based ecosystem is more than established and adequate now (though with increasing climate-related concerns, of course)
– the Governments are actively framing laws and rules for both industries – till today, for e-commerce, and at a slow pace for EVs

To tackle the lack of trust in EVs on several fronts (life of the vehicle, life of the battery, ‘what if my scooter stops in the middle of the road due to lack of charge?’, swappable or non-swappable battery vehicle choice, battery replacement, charging at home, charging at the office – who pays for it?, charging outside home/office, speed of charging, the safety of charging point at home… and so on), it requires more than one serious player to adopt a Flipkart-style onus and work on building the category from the ground up, in terms of India-centric innovative thinking and problem-solving communication that addresses customers’ concerns head-on.

Right now, we have no EV player talking about the problems consumers imagine that lead to poor consideration for these vehicles. They are merely being sold like normal products, the way Rediff marketed ‘online shopping’ for the longest time.

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