Battery swapping, an alternative to charging electric vehicles, may not succeed in India if one adds the additional cost of infrastructure, manpower and extra batteries, according to Ather Energy co-founder and chief executive officer Tarun Mehta.

The electric two-wheeler startup stumbled upon operational challenges while testing out some prototypes.

"When we built the prototypes, we found a lot of challenges that weren't there in the concept stage. The first issue we ran into was the weight of the battery. Lifting a 10 kg battery is a handful. It's not easy to change for senior citizens. You have to slide it gently and not drop it," Mehta tells Fortune India.

Battery swapping, which involves exchanging discharged batteries for charged ones, is mostly used for electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers.

Culturally, Indians expect a bit more support and help and may not be willing to handle unwieldy batteries, says Mehta. "If companies are putting up helpers to swap batteries, then economics only works out if you deploy about 200 batteries at a swapping station. And for that, you need more real estate, about half the size of a petrol pump. Then your infrastructure costs suddenly skyrocket," Mehta explains.

Moreover, the cost of helpers and security to guard expensive lithium-ion batteries that support swapping comes at about ₹500-₹600 per month per customer, he calculates.

"For every 100 scooters, you need about 30 extra batteries. That cost has to be recovered from the customers," he says.

Once you add the cost of infrastructure, manpower, security and extra batteries, the average cost for a consumer doing more than 1,500 kilometres per month came at about ₹2.8 per kilometre, making swapping more expensive than petrol which costs ₹2.5 per km, the Ather CEO says.

Apart from cost and operational challenges, there is also a mindset issue. Consumers who've just bought a brand new scooter may not want to swap their new battery with a 3-year-old one at a swapping station, says Mehta.

Mehta, along with Ather co-founder Swapnil Jain, had filed India's first patent on battery swapping. "I have been a big proponent of swapping even against our internal team members who weren't sold on the idea of swapping. Even though I was emotionally attached to battery swapping, I swung the other way when we built and we ran these EVs," Mehta admits.

Of late, several battery-swapping stations catering to business-to-business fleet operators have come up in India. Given battery swapping's potential to proliferate the adoption of electric vehicles in the country, NITI Aayog, the government's public policy think tank, is holding stakeholder discussions with stakeholders.

However, the ecosystem remains complex as it involves several technologies that are still evolving. To have a prudent policy in place for battery swapping which promotes EVs without adversely impacting technological innovation, more deliberations on the draft of the policy are being done by NITI Aayog, the Bureau of Indian Standards, the Department of Science and Technology and other agencies.

On the standardisation of battery packs, Mehta believes the industry must self-discover things. "If swapping becomes the future, then batteries will have to be standardised. But before you start standardising battery packs, someone will come up with a new chemistry or form factor which is cheaper and has a better life," says Mehta. "You can standardise things where you are reasonably sure that innovation is going to be very slow," he adds.

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