DREAM BIKE

How an engineering college project turned into India’s first electric motorcycle company

Quartz india
Quartz india

Much of Kapil Shelke’s childhood was spent tinkering with toy cars, with a penchant for dismantling and then putting them back together.

By the time he got to Pune’s DY Patil College of Engineering in 2005, he had moved on to bigger and more powerful toys—like motorcycles. A couple of years into his degree, he, along with three classmates, decided to take it up a gear: building India’s fastest electric motorcycle.

“We were living, breathing, and eating motorcycles those days,” Shelke said.

A decade later, 29-year-old Shelke’s college project has evolved into what is arguably India’s first electric motorcycle company—Tork Motorcycles.

On April 18, Tork announced that it has raised an undisclosed amount of angel funding. The round was led by Bhavish Agarwal and Ankit Bhati, co-founders of taxi aggregator Ola.

Tork’s first commercial bike, the prototype for which is currently under development, is expected to launch sometime next year. The T6X will have a range of over 100 kilometres on a single charge. And it’ll take less than an hour, according to Shelke, to get the bike’s battery to full charge.

But it hasn’t been an easy ride for Shelke to get here.

Racing roots

By 2009, in their final year at college, the foursome, led by Shelke, had managed to put together a prototype.

They also found themselves a name, Tork Motorcycles, and decided on their first big test: The Isle of Man TT. One of the world’s most prestigious motorcycle races, it was was holding its first zero-carbon racing event that year, the TTXGP.

“This was my chance to make history,” explained Shelke.

With some Rs15 lakh (around $22,640) pooled in from family and friends, the team turned up at the Isle of Man, a small island between Ireland and Great Britain. Pitted against larger and substantially better funded international teams, Tork Motorcycles’s TX01, with a top speed of 156 kilometres per hour (kmph), managed to reach the podium with a third-place finish.

The boys were ecstatic. But back home, no one was bothered.

“We came back, and nobody knew what we’d done,” Shelke remembered. Once word got around, “a lot of people said that this might be luck,” he added. “So I said, ‘Let’s do this again.'”

So, in 2010, still with a four-member, self-funded team, Tork went back to the TTXGP, which had grown to a six-round championship, with races in the UK, Spain and the Netherlands. With a top speed of 214 kmph, their new bike, TX02, won the first round, and eventually finished third in the championship.

A bunch of Indian college students had proven themselves at the world’s premier electric motorcycle racing championship, again.

Chinese coaching

In time, the original team parted ways, but Shelke didn’t budge from the racetrack. He spent a few years with the electric motorcycle racing team backed by Zongshen, a large Chinese two-wheeler manufacturer. Although the position came with its challenges—a vegetarian, Shelke survived on rice and noodles when in China—the scale of Zongshen’s operations allowed him to explore an electric motorcycle ecosystem that didn’t exist in India.

While with Zongshen, Shelke also began a side-project to build an electric motorcycle that looked just like a regular petrol bike. He took a 150cc Yamaha FZ, stripped it and turned it into an electric motorcycle without sacrificing performance. After some motoring media outlets picked up on the bike and spread the word, Shelke began thinking about a commercial venture. The feedback had been that good.

“I had thought that someone else would do this, and I would buy that bike,” he said, “but nobody had built an affordable electric motorcycle.” Work began on a prototype. The TX 05 was developed within three months and showcased at the end of 2014 at an auto expo in Gujarat. In three days, he met with over two dozen dealers and was forced to redo his initial math. “I was looking at 500 to 1,000 motorcycles a year,” Shelke explained, “But we found that people really wanted a product like this.”

In January 2015, Shelke took a call: Tork Motorcycle would go commercial.

The electric challenge

Commercial electric vehicles are a tricky proposition in a country like India.

There are three main problems, according to Abdul Majeed, a partner at consulting firm PwC who specialises in the automotive sector. “You’ve got to get your initial cost right,” Majeed explained, because price-sensitive Indian customers would balk at spending twice the amount of a conventional vehicle to buy an electric one. But keeping prices low can be difficult for manufacturers since the cost of components can be high, especially since the economies of scale don’t kick in early on.

Second, the charging infrastructure for these vehicles is critical and a customer’s needs should be assessed before launching one, Majeed added. Lastly, getting customers to change their mindset towards buying an electric vehicle is easier said than done.

The product, therefore, has to be top-notch. “The buyer of the EV (electric vehicle) has to feel that there are benefits and yet no plausible shortcomings in adapting to a new product technology,” said Deepesh Rathore, co-founder of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors, a global automobile forecasting company. “So the EV has to have high build quality, good design, practicality, convenience and product features that improve upon the current breed of conventional products available in the market.”

Already some electric vehicle players, apart from Tork, are trying to disrupt India’s massive two-wheeler market. Bangalore-based Ather Energy, for instance, is on the verge of launching a smart electric scooter, the S340, which it unveiled earlier this year. Built by Indian Institute of Technology Madras graduates who started up the project in their dorm room, Ather is backed by the founders of e-commerce giant Flipkart.

Nonetheless, Shelke thinks he and his 18-member team can deliver with T6X. “There’s a point right now that people want a product like this,” he said. “So, can I offer something to the normal motorcycle guy?”

By that measure, the motorcycle’s 100km range should be enough for intra-city travel, which the company plans to boost further by building dedicated charging stations. Although the company won’t comment on the bike’s top speed or pricing, Tork’s first commercial offering shouldn’t lack on the performance side, given the manufacturer’s strong racing pedigree.

But there’s still some time before the T6X hits Indian roads. Till then, Shelke’s got another race to finish: riding Tork Motorcycles from prototype to commercial production.

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