Interview with Chetan Maini

Everyone knows the G-Wiz in London, but not everyone knows the force behind Reva, the company that builds them and India's EV revolution.  The EV revolution in India is in its infancy but clearly the future of a country known for its stratospheric pollution, congestion, and energy issues can only made better by people like Chetan Maini, the man who created Reva.  Maini is currently the Chief of Strategy and Technology at Mahindra Reva Electric, the company that acquired a majority share in the Maini Group earlier this year, and is due to launch two new vehicles in the next couple of years. 

It was his innate passion for electric technologies that flung him into developing electric cars and it is his unique vision that powers his life mission to bring mass-produced, affordable, electric vehicles to India, then the rest of the world.  The fact that his first product, REVA, named after his mother, is somewhat of an electric icon in London lends credibility to his endeavours back home.  And if that wasn't enough encouragement he recently received the Economist Innovation Award for Energy and the Environment this last October 2011.  At the Awards it was said that "Chetan Maini is a pioneer in every sense of the word: challenging the status quo, overcoming technological limits and fuelling a revolution in automotive engineering!"

With plans to open a new plant in Bangalore with a capacity of 30,00 new cars per year and built to be sustainble from using natural light and ventilation to harnessing solar energy we caught up with Mr. Maini at the Awards and thereafter to find out a little more about the man behind the REVAlution.   

Green Car Design : Tell us a little about the child that discovered he liked how things worked and how that follows through your work?

Chetan Maini : I loved motors from the start - I was building remote-controlled cars and planes by age 10 and motorized go-carts as a teenager. Because specialized components were hard to come by in India, I would ask my dad’s friends to buy spare parts when they travelled abroad. When I was 11 or 12, I had a hobby room that was bigger than the room where I slept at night.

Pursuing my passion, I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, where I was a member of the Solar Car Team that built and won the GM Sun Race in USA in 1990.  We then placed in the top 3 in the World Solar Challenge in Australia.  The fact that we could travel 3,000 km across Australia without using a drop of petrol inspired me to explore zero-emissions mobility and specifically cost-effective urban electric vehicles.

Three of my friends were interested in EVs, and we talked about starting a company to work on them.  Dr. Lon Bell, one of my friends’ father and a technologist, was our mentor.  He loved the idea and started a company called Amerigon (AEV).  After working with him, I went back to finish my Masters at Stanford, then returned to work with him full-time in California for a few years.  REVA was started in 1994 as a joint venture between the Maini Group and AEV, and I returned to Bangalore in the late 1990s.

GCD : Are you interested in car design or is it purely the technological R&D that drives your work?

CM : I’m interested in both, but with a bit more emphasis on technological R&D.

GCD : Where does the name REVA come from?

CM : The car was named after my mother, Reva Maini.
GCD : You know that there is a love-hate relationship with the G-Wiz in London, aesthetically it leaves much to be desired yet it, like yourself, is a game changer in its own right.  Without it the infrastructure and culture for electric cars in the city would still be dragging its feet.  How do you feel about that?

CM: I feel very good that a small company from India could have over 1,000 cars running for the last 7 years in one of world’s major cities.  Our work in the UK led to the development of public infrastructure, and now companies have built full ecosystems. Today, many other automakers are looking at London to launch their EVs, and it’s become one of the world’s EV capitals.

GCD : What is the perceptual feeling of the REVA (G-Wiz) in India?

CM : Our customers have found the Reva to be convenient for everyday driving and the easiest way to get around in dense cities.  What many thought they were buying as a second car for occasional use has actually become their primary day-to-day car.  After several years, with rising petrol prices, people have found the car light on their wallet.  Of course, driving electric also has great environmental benefits – and anyone who’s been in an Indian city knows we have an air pollution problem.

GCD : Where does India source it electric power from?  Is it from a sustainable source?

CM : Roughly 11% of India’s energy production today, or 20,000 MW, comes from renewable sources like wind and solar power, and about 4% from nuclear power.  The country plans to invest heavily in expanding renewable energy generation over the coming decade, including a Rs. 1.5 trillion program to add 17,000 MW of additional capacity by 2017, totalling 74,400 MW by 2022.

GCD : To say that you are a pioneer is an understatement, you are an entrepreneur, have a strong family bond with your family’s business, you have a new role as Chief Strategy and Technology of Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles, and are an environmental supporter…is this too much responsibility for one man?

CM : My focus has always been solely on Reva, from the beginning.  It was and still is an important part of the family business.  As chief of strategy and technology, I continue to work on future technologies and programs at Mahindra Reva.

GCD : What is your view about green car design?  Is it important to visually distinguish an EV from a fossil fuel car through design or should cars share the same styling and architecture?

CM : I think it’s very important for green cars to be visually distinguished.  Cars are an emotional purchase, so new technology needs to look visibly different.  With EVs, we’re free from having to build around legacy engines, fuel tanks, exhaust systems, and the like, so we can think of completely new styling and packaging.  Our idea is that ground-up, purpose-built EVs will yield the best direction to optimize both styling and technical architecture.

GCD : Now that REVA is in the right financial hands, EVs are being accepted more, and your two new models NXR and NXG are set to debut in the next few years do you feel that part of the journey is complete?

CM : The last few years have been a fascinating and challenging beginning to our journey to customer acceptance of “Born Green” cars.  We’re excited to help make the petrol-free world a reality.

GCD : What are your plans for global distribution?  Or will you focus on the Indian market?

CM : We’ve seen a great response both in India and abroad.  Given our strong distribution network with Mahindra in India and the country’s growing population, we see a huge opportunity domestically, so we will initially concentrate more heavily on India, but we will continue to have a shared focus on both domestic and global markets.

GCD : You now have the benefit of hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

CM : Yes, I would’ve done a lot of things very differently, from technology to marketing, organization, and product.  One thing that comes to mind is having an earlier, higher-priority focus on consumer insights to build into products and marketing.

GCD : What did it mean to you to have won the Economist Innovation Award for Energy and Environment?
CM : The Economist’s Innovation Award is definitely the most meaningful award that I have received to date. My dream has always been to use technology to provide green transportation that is affordable, to make a significant beneficial impact on society.  The award is also a great boost to the team at Mahindra Reva, who have worked tirelessly to make this happen.  To be recognised publicly by such a prestigious publication gives us great pride and hope - what was once what was just a dream is finally on its way to becoming a reality.

GCD : What get you up in the morning?

CM : I love to learn new things and conquer new challenges.  I enjoy working with a great team and company, and ultimately doing my little part to make the world a better place.