The quiet bikes
Two start-ups are trying to change the image of electric motorcycles
Can the term “petrolhead" be used to describe the founder of an electric-bike start-up? It’s a problem I’m wrestling with as Kapil Shelke explains the genesis of Tork Motorcycles over a cup of tea in my office in Pune. “I just wanted to make the fastest motorcycle," he says. He is remarkably candid during our conversation.
In Bengaluru, a little more thought and research went into setting up Ather Energy. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, batchmates Tarun Mehta and Swapnil Jain stumbled upon the design of a lithium-ion battery pack for a scooter. They began studying the market for electric vehicles and realized there was a space for a new product.
The founders of Tork Motorcycles and Ather Energy have wildly different mindsets, but a common goal—to make electric two-wheelers desirable, after Chinese electric scooters were met with scorn by the market not too long ago.
Roots in racing
Shelke didn’t set out to build an electric bike, only to solve the “enormous" problems he had with his first motorcycle, a Bajaj Pulsar 220. “As an engineer, you want to improve things, but you can’t improve petrol engines now. Electric engines are far superior, and the limitations of batteries are not there now," he says.
Pune has a lively biking culture, so it was easy for Shelke to look for help. He sourced a frame, or chassis, and went about building a race bike from the ground up while still in college. “We started in 2007 and, in 2009, we finished the first motorcycle. It had a 156 kmph top speed, all on lithium batteries; it could outrun my Pulsar at that time."
In 2009, it was announced that a race for zero-carbon motorcycles, called TTX Grand Prix (TTXGP), would be held at the legendary Isle of Man's TT circuit. “We (Shelke and his friends) actually dropped out of college to go to the race," Shelke says. “We wanted to just complete the course." Turned out they had a rather good motorcycle and, though they struggled to find a rider, finished on the podium.
The next year, Shelke took the frame of the Yamaha YZF-R15, the best bike chassis available at the time, and threw everything he had learnt from the European teams at the TTXGP race at it—better suspension, tyres and, importantly, fit-finish. Mahindra Composites were used to build a lightweight, composite carbon-fibre battery box. Two old electric motors and the controllers were borrowed from Agni Motors in Gujarat. The all-important battery cells were rented from another racing team. “Everything was basically bought or rebuilt. Nothing was new. But with a lighter frame and a very light rider, we won the first race (the TTXGP series in the UK)." That bike hit a top speed of 210 kmph, and Shelke got noticed by a big Chinese team, AO’s Motorsports. Using their drivetrain, he eventually got the bike to a top speed of 300 kmph.
From track to road
Two years ago, in the middle of all the racing activities, Shelke put together a prototype for a road-going electric motorcycle to gauge market interest. It cost around Rs1.5 lakh, did 200km on a charge, had hub-mounted electric motors and, in his words, “looked shitty". The plan was to make 500 a year.
But when he took his bike to an auto show in Gujarat, 16 dealers signed on. “I realized the business had become serious. You can’t make 5,000 motorcycles with three people (Suraj Giri, the prototyping head, Sumit Shinde, the administrator, and Shelke). So, in January 2015, we said let’s scrap this and build a motorcycle that someone would actually love to buy." In August 2015, Shelke and his team (of 26) began working on the T6X, the bike that is now available for pre-bookings on the Tork Motorcycles website—deliveries start in June. Tork has a small facility in Chakan and will begin full-fledged manufacturing soon.
“We wanted a motorcycle that is electric but doesn’t look like an electric bike," Shelke says. The T6X uses a trellis frame, like the one on Ducatis, on to which the battery box is hung. Shelke also got an in-house styling team in place to not only make the T6X look desirable but also form a cohesive design language for the years to come. It can run for 100km on single charge and has 27 Nm of torque and a top speed of 100 kmph. It is now available at a promotional price of Rs1.25 lakh.
Tork, which Shelke started in 2007 with a loan from his father, has now raised funding from Ola co-founders Bhavish Aggarwal and Ankit Bhati and Harpreet Singh Grover, co-founder of online hiring platform CoCubes.com.
The Ather story
Around the same time Shelke was skipping classes in Pune to build race bikes, Mehta and Jain were working on their own idea for a start-up. The reputation of electric scooters had been tarnished by a flood of unreliable Chinese products that had entered the market. “The scooters had 25 kmph top speeds, low performance, low acceleration, long charging times of up to 8 hours and batteries that would only last for up to 5,000km before replacement," Mehta says.
“We looked at all the technology and realized that to improve on the market standard, we didn’t need radical new inventions, just good engineering and good product spacing."
The result was the Ather S340, which will be available for pre-bookings soon at a price somewhere between a Honda Activa (Rs65,000) and a Vespa (Rs1.1 lakh), with deliveries expected by the early part of next year—for now, you can register for pre-bookings on the website. The bike looks futuristic and has features to match its look—the touch-screen dashboard has Google Maps integrated into it, a slot for a 3G/4G SIM card so you can access the Internet and can receive software updates that will improve the bike.
While Tork Motorcycles is a company driven by biking enthusiasts, Ather Energy’s approach to the business is planned and professional. They already have a manufacturing plant in place with an installed capacity of 30,000 units, though in the initial stages production will be capped at 10,000 units per annum.
Ather recently got a Rs205 crore cash infusion from India’s largest two-wheeler company, Hero MotoCorp, to follow up on the Rs75.33 crore received from private equity investor Tiger Global last year and the initial Rs6.7 crore seed money from Flipkart co-founders Sachin and Binny Bansal. And they are well advanced in their testing, a phase Mehta describes as the most difficult.
The big question about electric vehicles remains whether our cities have the infrastructure for them. There is no point owning a scooter that runs on a battery if there are no places to charge it. Mehta acknowledges this is going to be a challenge, particularly since the S340 has a range of just 60km. “At the start, there will be a few locations where it will be really hard to convince a customer to add a charging point," he says.
Starting with Bengaluru, Ather is looking at installing around 50 charging stations in major cities, at places such as malls and coffee shops. There may be scope for electric-bike manufacturers to tie up and set up a charging network.
The chief motivation for buying an electric vehicle has been to lower one’s carbon footprint, but both Tork and Ather want to focus on other benefits, such as how pleasant it is to ride a silent bike and how much cheaper an electric vehicle is to run.
“It’s dangerous to have only the environment as a motivation when you are trying to drive a company like this," Mehta says. “You have to sell a great story. Sell a sexy vehicle."
We haven’t ridden either Tork or Ather’s bike, so it is impossible to say how either will perform on the road. We don’t know what the real-world range, longevity of the battery pack, or even long-term quality or reliability of these bikes will be. But there’s no denying that both Tork and Ather are selling a great story that even petrolheads will get excited about.
The evolution of tork’s electric
Tork’s first motorcycle was built from scratch with a 7.2 kilowatt battery pack. It had 30 Nm torque, 40hp power and a 156 kmph top speed. The battery layo
Based on the Yamaha R15, the compact frame made it a big challenge to fit the 11 kilowatt battery. It ran two 30 Nm- brushed DC motors in parallel for a combined torque of 60Nm and
80hp of power. The top speed was 214 kmph.
With a Suzuki GSX-R 750 platform, there was more space for the 14 kilowatt battery pack. Brushed DC motors pumped out 70 Nm of torque, 80hp of power and a top speed of 240 kmph
Using the Yamaha FZ frame, the controller was concealed inside the tank and the motor unit had a plastic covering with visual attributes close to an IC engine. With 30 Nm of torque and 40hp of power, it was capable of a top speed of 127 kmph.
Built in 90 days, it had upside-down front forks, LED headlights and was designed to be an
economical commuter. This is the bike displayed at the Gujarat auto show that got 16 dealers excited. The top speed was 127 kmph.