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INTERVIEW W/ Arun Vinayak, Chief Product Officer at ATHER ENERGY

On the 5th of June, ATHER ENERGY launched their 2 models – the Ather450 & Ather340 – a series of Intelligent Electric Scooters. The flagship 450 comes with a top speed of 80 kmph, a range of up to 75 km and an acceleration of 0-40 kmph in 3.9sec and ensures a riding experience that’s ideally suited for city commute.

Another aspect of ATHER ENERGY is the AtherGrid. A comprehensive public charging network that not only complements the brand products but has also been opened to all electric vehicles which can charge from a 5A/15A plug point.

Ather450

These recent developments provided designdaily.. with an opportunity to have a quick conversation with Ather‘s Chief Product Officer, Arun Vinayak.

Read Time : 6 Minutes

Hello Arun, can you please share a bit about your background?

I graduated from IIT Madras (India) with a B-Tech in mechanical engineering. I’m an engineer by degree constantly growing into my designer shoes among other pairs at Ather.

From summer projects at my grandparents’, playing with scrap, wood and tools or pulling everything apart only to put it together (on most occasions) at home; building things has always been one of the constants.

I built my first powered vehicle in my 12th grade with second hand parts and scrap. The exhilaration of driving a self-made vehicle triggered a pursuit of all things ‘Automotive’. I spent a lot of time understanding why vehicles feel good, the vehicle dynamics behind it, the ergonomics, the throttle response etc. This helped me transition from a raw engineer to a more holistic product designer. The nuances of being a designer go well beyond the specs of a product. They include elements of packaging, fit and finish and user experience.

Ironically, I spent a lot of time with IC engines both casually and through structured research projects, which made me realize the deep limitations they have. So, when the opportunity came up to build a team to build vehicles that weren’t just electric, but vehicles that truly feel great – it was a perfect fit. The Ather 450 has been a labor of engineering, design, development and operations.

What is ATHER’s Design Philosophy & Process? 

I’m a proponent of “Clean Design” and it is deeply rooted in everything we do at Ather, but it has taken on a broader meaning. Clean = A noise free experience.

We believe there’s a lot that goes on today in the vehicle ownership journey. From buying a vehicle, to riding, parking, refueling/charging and maintaining it, there’s definite scope in cleaning a lot of that experience up.  Aesthetically, we have a no decals and a no chrome rule. And when you look closer you will see that our frame also looks beautiful and is very clean – inside out.

In a literal sense we look at clean ride and handling which are the fundamentals of vehicle ride experience. Details like throttle response, steering corrections at a corner or comfort –  vibration dosage values. We use multiple algorithms to track these aspects and ensure we are always superior and clean compared to our counterparts.  As an engineer I frantically work towards removing every gram possible, less is definitely more.

Experientially there is a lot of cognitive load and mental noise in owning and riding a vehicle, multiple decisions and choices need to be made for a simple ride. We believe that you shouldn’t worry about any of that, instead the vehicle should take care of all it. The consumer’s sole focus should be on enjoying the ride. All the intelligent and connected features of the vehicle enables us to deliver this clean experience.

Fundamentally this is because we believe in “building for ourselves”. It’s a process we follow at Ather. It stems from the fact that we truly understand what a great product should be, backed by optimism, dedication and a dash of arrogance to believe we can build it, topped by a lot of hope that enough people will pay for it. It’s a process that’s really worked well for us.

How do you define ‘Good Design’ & what are its essential elements?

Design is a blueprint to achieve “something”. The more focused, thought-through and simpler the blueprint, better the design. “Something” could be aesthetics, cost, ease of manufacturing, auditory experience, ease of service, a wide smile on your customer when he takes a corner.

A great product is something that strikes a balance on design across a lot these fronts. Great products need you to choose where you need great design, where you can afford only good, and make peace with having “ok” in the rest.

What are your Responsibilities as the Chief Product Officer? 

I am primarily responsible for the product roadmap. What products should Ather build? What should these products do? What should they look like, feel like? The objective is always to have as far out an answer as possible. Especially as a young company in a nascent industry, ground realities change. So, we constantly endeavor to course correct.

The teams I lead include Product Management, Industrial design and Product Validation.

What are the essential aspects of an Electric vehicle design process?

It’s important to realize and appreciate that electric technology is nascent, constantly evolving and it is a different beast compared to an IC engine. Both platforms are great. They both have their unique advantages and challenges.

Electric systems have unique challenges, that you have to identify and solve from the design phase. It needs you to question the status quo on everything including conventional systems like a frame. The way you design a frame around a battery is different from the way you would design it around an engine. So, the process simply cannot take an IC engine platform, throw out the engine and strap on a motor and battery. That just leads to suboptimal products. Unlike an IC engine design process where the building blocks are mature and have been optimized over the last 100 years, electric vehicle building blocks continue to evolve rapidly. The technology also doesn’t exist as readily in the open market as compared to their combustion counter parts. The design process needs to be agile, flexible and involve developing a lot of the building blocks internally within the company as against just purchasing it off the shelf.

Talking about the (current) Indian market, is there a specific ‘Design Theme’ that ATHER followed while creating the 340 & 450? What would you say lies ahead for the Indian automotive design industry & do you think Electric vehicles will form a substantial ‘piece of the pie’ in the coming years? 

The focus for Ather 450/340 was “Zero Compromise”. Electric vehicles of the past required too many compromises, being green was the only thing they had going – which isn’t a sustainable product pitch. We think you should be riding the fastest, best looking, sleekest vehicle that handles the best, is intelligent and has the all the best elements of comfort and convenience, like the largest storage box. It also happens to be electric. The focus was building the best scooter and not be defined by the electric tag.

Obviously, at Ather we believe electric is the future, so this answer might be biased. However, there is enough data out there to prove the same. India is one of the most exciting markets for electric. The urban usage profiles in India makes it a great place to sell affordable moderate range variants. The two-wheeler market is humongous and rapidly growing. Make great electric options and people will buy.

On the topic of Future, education is an essential factor that ensures a good future. So, what are your thoughts on the current state of the Indian design education & what lies ahead for it?

My general experience has been engineers come in with very little appreciation for design and product. Designers with very little empathy for engineering challenges. And they both generally don’t care too much about the fact that someone has to produce their design in respectable quantities. Lack of knowledge is completely acceptable. But not lack of appreciation/empathy for other domains. I wish schools worked harder towards fixing that.

Ather450

A piece of Advice to all the students out there? 

Collaborate – Real world product design doesn’t happen in silos.

You will never know enough and that’s ok. You definitely will not know anything about other domains. Hence be eager to collaborate and be open minded to learn. Empathize with other domains and they will empathize with yours. It’s no more a theoretical project with a focus of gaining the maximum design score. Someone must engineer, build and sell what you are making.

Be ready to unlearn if required. It is easiest to do so with minimal experience. Lack of experience is also an advantage – Use it. Be smart enough to know when to draw upon experience at the same time.

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