How freaked out would you be if you received a call from your car company telling you that a part in your car is about to collapse and that they would replace it free of cost?
You'd be spooked. Just like one of Mahindra Reva's customers.
In December 2013, the customer care team at Mahindra Reva caught a customer off-guard when they called him to inform that a certain part in his car was showing signs of failure.
"We reached out to the customer and offered to replace the part free of cost. He was bewildered and refused to replace the part as he was not exactly experiencing any problem," says Kartik Gopal, GM-Mobility Solutions and Business Development, Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles.
Two days later, the part breathed its last. And Mahindra Reva had already detected this. So, when the customer got in touch with the company, it had already ensured that the part to be replaced was ready and delivered in no time--at no additional cost.
That kind of magic rarely happens. That's because not many companies have the guts to play with ideas of the future. Mahindra Reva isn't one of them. For the first time in India, the company built a car that can talk to its owner, thanks to a telematics-based vehicle monitoring system.
Telematics is an integrated use of telecommunications and informatics, also known as ICT (information and communications technology). The system--implemented in the company's latest offering Mahindra e2o--can help the company resolve firmware or software issues in the car remotely, among other things.
Using telematics and mobility, the team at Reva has created India's first car that can be controlled via a smartphone app. The app can help customers keep a tab on the general health and performance of a car, can control in-car features like AC. It can also send timely alerts to customers about damaged parts.
"At Mahindra Reva, we have been trying to create a car that's environment-friendly and also bonds with our customers," says Gopal.In the quest to build India's first intelligent car, Gopal and the team at Mahindra Reva have traversed unknown territories, and have taken the road less travelled.
Behind the Wheels
The REVA Electric Car Company (RECC) was founded in 1994 and launched as a joint venture between the Maini Group of Bangalore and AEV LLC of USA. In May 2010, India's largest SUV and tractors manufacturer, Mahindra & Mahindra, bought a 55.2 percent controlling stake in Reva.
RECC launched its first car, the two-seater REVA in India in 2001. Few know that the same car, branded G-Wiz, was launched in Europe in 2004. In 2009, the company launched a new concept model called The REVA NXR M1 class electric concept car at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The company was looking at experimenting with more innovative technology to improve the functionality and the usability of the car.
"The Reva-Lion--a lithium-ion battery version of the Reva-I--was introduced in Europe with telematics. This was the first time we were experimenting with telematics. It was the first generation of intelligent cars, the lessons from which were later brought into the e2o. The telematics unit is just like the black-box inside an aircraft's cockpit," says Gopal.
Electric Vehicles (EV) are very different from Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars. Mahindra Reva realized that since most parts of an EV's drivetrain (powertrain) deal with voltages and currents, it is easy to digitize and sense various performance parameters and communicate them over a wireless channel.
A study of customer usage patterns helped Mahindra Reva realize that people leave their EV on charge overnight, expecting the car to be ready for travel in the morning. But sometimes people plug in the vehicle but forget to switch on the mains, or sometimes the car stops charging due to voltage fluctuations, loose plugs or power failure. "In many such situations, the customer only realizes, a little too late, that the batteries are not fully charged," says Gopal.
Another battle that Mahindra Reva had to fight was the issue of 'range anxiety' among customers. Range anxiety refers to drivers who constantly worry that their vehicles have insufficient charge to reach their destination. The term is primarily used in reference to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), and is considered to be one of the major barriers to large scale adoption of all-electric cars. Mahindra Reva wanted to fix that.
It wanted a system in the car that could make the car converse with its owner and proactively alert him or her about the general health of the battery, the amount of charge left in the car and whether the car is charging perfectly or not. The answer: A telematics system that could help the company's customer care team keep a close watch on the performance of its cars.
Another problem that the company was hoping to solve was after-sales service. In 2012, a Frost & Sullivan Customer Insights Report asked customers spread across 14 cities in India to rate different parameters that influence their buying decision. More than 60 percent of respondents rated after-sales service experience as a very important factor for buying a particular brand of car.
But providing customers excellent after sales service comes at a price. Apart from India, Mahindra Reva also exports the EV to 24 other countries. The company would have to pay through its nose to set up physical service networks in these countries.
Thankfully, it wouldn't have to. Unlike normal cars that have more mechanical parts, due to the basic build of EVs, a lot of issues can be handled and solved via OTA (over the air) firmware and parameter updates. This opened up a completely new service model for Mahindra Reva, one that will allow it to resolve customers' car issues faster but also help the company keep its service center costs down.
Pedal to the MetalWith the proliferation of smartphones and their ability to double up as mini computing devices, Mahindra Reva found just the perfect device that could become the bridge between the customer and the car. "Today almost everyone has a phone that supports apps and it is one object people are most likely to always carry with them wherever they are. So, a smartphone app was our best bet," says Gopal.
Mahindra Reva teamed up with a Bangalore-based company that specializes in embedded devices to develop the telematics unit within cars. The company roped in another solution provider to create the mobile application. Apart from this, the company also developed a set of applications with Mahindra Telematics to help it monitor the cars through servers located at the Mahindra's datacenter and a webpage user interface for its customers.
When cars are shipped from the Mahindra Reva factory, they are registered with the company's system. Once a customer buys a car from one of the company's dealers, the dealer logs into a webpage, feeds in the car and customer details--like mobile number--and creates an account for the customer. The customer, then, needs to log in using a username and password, after which he is provided with a link to download the app for his Android, Blackberry or iOS phones.
The car relays information to the company's telematics servers via a Telematics Gateway Unit in the car and a M2M mobile carrier platform. The Telematics Servers host Web-based applications that enable the customer care team to monitor cars. The servers also store all critical information about the cars right from the time of its shipping to the customer which is being used for developing analytics based prognostics applications. Customers can access information about their cars via a mobile app or the dedicated customer Web page.
The solution provides customers with a host of features on their mobile app. For example, if one leaves a car plugged-in but forgets to switch on the main, or the car stops charging due to voltage or power issues, it waits for a few seconds and sends an SMS to the customer on his mobile informing him about the problem. At any given point of time, customers can check how much charge they have in the car via the app."The app can also tell customers how much distance he can cover based on how much charge the car has. This will help customers plan their day and trips in advance and avoid being stranded on the road," says Gopal.
Going the Distance
Because they were creating a first in the Indian automotive industry, Gopal and his team were not satisfied with just the bare minimum. They have integrated Google maps with the smartphone app. "Let's say you are going from point A to B and B to C. With the help of Google maps, the app can tell you how much charge you will need to cover the distance and help locate charging points," says Gopal. The company has installed close to 300 charging stations across various cities in India and mapped them on Google Maps.
Not only that, the app also includes links to YouTube tutorial videos within the app so that customers know how to change a flat tyre, for example, or replace a fuse in the car.
Telematics has also helped the company to get rid of the range anxiety problem by introducing a smartphone feature called REVive. Based on the health of the battery, a reserve amount of energy is made available on-demand. If customers run out of charge, they just need to press the REVive button on their smartphone app and the car would get extra energy to last them for another five to seven kms.
"Customers can then check the closest charging point on their app and get their cars charged," says Gopal.
The company has applied for a patent for this concept. Last year, REVive got Mahindra into Fast Company's 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World list.
While that's a feat, putting this wonder car on the road wasn't devoid of challenges. This was the first time an automobile company was experimenting with something like telematics --for personal mobility--in India and there were no benchmarks or references to base their performance parameters on.
"Also, we were working with four partners at the same time for the various components of the telematics unit. We had to manage multiple stakeholders to get the job done," says Gopal.
In the end, it was a job well done.
"We had two kinds of ROI that needed to be defined. One was measuring the ROI on customer satisfaction and second was to reduce our service center costs," says Gopal.
By being able to remotely diagnose, predict and solve issues, the telematics unit has helped the service engineers at Mahindra Reva save about 80 percent of time required for fault rectification. This has not only saved the service teams precious man-hours required to detect a fault, plan for course-correction and service a car, but also helped customers by significantly reducing the issue resolution time.
Indeed there are automobile companies that boast of the most superior design, or unmatched luxury and some thrive on prestige value. But Mahindra Reva is a cut above the rest.
Debarati Roy is principal correspondent. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org