Oben Electric is an Indian startup developing electric motorcycles with its own R&D, and co-founder and chief executive officer Madhumita Agrawal speaks to WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das about its approach to EVs and green mobility.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on green mobility in India. Read more

Key insights

  • Government policies are making it easier for EV manufacturers and consumers to make the shift to electric vehicles.
  • In the long run, EV players with strong roots in R&D and inhouse capabilities will win.
  • Marketing, presence, positioning are critical in a high engagement segment like EVs; those looking to buy are not window shoppers.
WARC: You are one of the newest entrants in the EV space in India. Tell us how Oben Electric started.

Madhumita Agrawal: We are an automotive product. Now this is nothing new. Two-wheelers and automotive products have been around for ages. EVs though come with a new perspective, challenges and also a lot of unlearning and learning new ways. This is where the brand’s thought process has been – how do we position ourselves to address these new challenges or learn about the consumer in this transition from petrol to EV.

The journey begins with the thought process that I want my consumer to shift to EVs. For that, two things are extremely important. Either I give them a similar product with slightly better features or something drastically better than what they are using. Secondly, the transition has to be very smooth; it cannot be challenging.

So, our journey started with building the product. We are building a “motorcycle”. It has to work, perform, ride like one. It was the first box to be ticked. The second was the smooth transition.

All the technology and product-related development was our first focus. We began with problem solving, identifying gaps and addressing them with technology. Design and brand perception followed because the segment we were entering is a mass premium one (150cc segment) wherein consumers are very conscious about their purchase. They want good products, they want products they can be proud of. So the brand positioning has been such too.

Then, we focused on how we communicate the brand promise. And then, of course, is the manufacturing and the setting up of the brand; we are doing that right now.

So we began at the basic level of understanding the need gap, addressing that with the right product and then moving forward.

We founded Oben Electric in August 2020. Prior to that, as founders, we were working in the entire value chain of the EV space. It gave us the confidence to build the product.

This year, in March, we unveiled the Oben Electric motorcycle, Rorr. Consumer and media test rides followed.

Would you agree that in the last couple of years, there has been growing awareness among consumers for a product like this, attributable perhaps to rising fuel prices or concern for the environment?

There definitely has been growth in the sales of electric two-wheelers in India. There have been some key drivers. The first is rising fuel prices and two-wheeler owners have felt the heat. Second is the low ownership cost. With the right product and the right means to refuel it, it's one-tenth of the fuel cost that the consumer has to bear. The falling battery prices and the rising prices of petrol-engined motorcycles, on the other hand, have also played a role.

Lastly, a very important driver has been government policies. The highly favourable policies in favour of manufacturers and consumers have made the shift to EVs smoother.

Of course, there is now a lot of awareness among consumers. The transition has started at scale. But there is still a long way to go.

An electric motorcycle is not a cheap product. Who is your target customer and what kind of profiling have you done?

The Bajaj Pulsar costs over Rs 100,000 on road. We are positioning the Rorr in the 150cc segment. Here, the consumer is a daily commuter for whom the primary mode of transport is a two-wheeler.

The consumer we are targeting sees that the initial cost of the EV is similar to or even less than ICE motorcycles. But the operational cost in the next five years is much lower with all the technology that we have provided. As a consumer, it becomes very important that the fuel station has come home (you can charge the motorcycle with a normal 15 amp socket).

I am talking about the mass two-wheeler riders who live in an independent house. Even for those living in high-rises it isn’t much of a challenge with housing societies setting up charging stations in parking areas. Both cost and convenience have arrived at the doorstep.

The design is important too because for this consumer, it is also a matter of pride to ride a good-looking motorcycle. If heads don’t turn, then the consumer isn’t very happy.

The styling, the smart purchase, if it’s value for money or not – that is how the positioning has been thought through.

There is a healthy response for your vehicle from consumers in urban areas as well as Tier 2 and 3 cities. What effort are you putting into consumer education?

We have an entire kit prepared. It isn’t just a booklet; there is a proper consumer onboarding process that is part of our sales process. We will be sharing certain dos and don’ts with the customer to ensure the battery life is better and the bike performance is too.

Ours is a connected vehicle. We have mechanisms in place to keep the customer updated if the vehicle is being used properly and there are issues to be addressed.

A lot of accidents also happen because the consumer does not know how to use this new technology. For example, the battery could be dropped. In our case though, it is a fixed battery. However, what if the vehicle meets with an accident? For all issues, there is a manual – a knowledge transfer and onboarding process will be in place.

Safety is the topmost concern of the EV buyer and recent incidents of malfunctioning EVs, with some catching fire, have not helped. What are you doing to ensure that your customer is buying an absolutely safe product?

We are among the only players in the two-wheeler segment that use a robust battery chemistry that is LFP. It is known widely across the world as having a robust chemistry with high lifecycle and heat withstanding capacity. That is basic!

Coming to the safety measures, how we integrate the chemistry, the cooling measures etc, they are all in place to ensure no anomalies. Furthermore, being a connected vehicle, if there still is an anomaly in spite of all the safety measures, the user will be notified immediately.

More importantly, the battery, which is the most critical and sensitive part of the vehicle, is put in an aluminium die cast. So, the battery is always protected, even if the vehicle meets with an accident.

Are you manufacturing the motorcycle locally or importing it?

We are a very R&D-focused company. Every component has been designed and manufactured inhouse and the assembly is done locally as well. Whether it is the battery, motor or charger, they are all manufactured inhouse in Bengaluru, not even by a vendor.

It is a product completely designed and made in India. That is the clear differentiation we bring, from the technology and development front.

How are you planning to sell your product? What is your distribution network like?

In the initial phase, we will start with nine cities, going up to 65 locations. That is how we are planning for the next year. We will go via the dealer channel; it is our thesis that consumers have yet to buy automotive or two-wheelers online.

We have started the pre-booking process. We are planning the further production setup. There will then be a dry run before we start deliveries.

The EV segment is getting crowded. How are you differentiating from established brands as well as startups like yourself?

Most of the players (in the two-wheeler category) are into scooters. There are hardly any in the motorcycle segment. That is the first difference.

The clear differentiation, though, is technology. In EVs, the winner in the long run will be the player with inhouse technology. The motor and battery are the two critical components that will give leverage to any player that has them inhouse.

What is your marketing strategy? Oben’s healthy response was achieved without any marketing spend. How are you going about it?

This is a high engagement segment. A person who has decided to buy an EV is not a window shopper. Hence, the marketing, presence, positioning must be done accordingly.

We are trying to build consumer trust organically. We are talking on-ground activities, we are on social media to create awareness.

As a brand, the strategy is to move ahead organically wherein we want our customers to walk in rather than reaching out to them.

What about more product launches by Oben? What are your plans?

When you have your own R&D, you can build anything. But there is one position that as a brand, you want to take.

Motorcycles are very complex to build. They have to perform in a certain way. While they could be meant for utility, they are not just for utility; there are a lot of emotions involved with a motorcycle. A lot of R&D, strong engineering is required to build a proper electric motorcycle. We have demonstrated our strength there. We aspire to come up as a strong motorcycle brand. Brands are built on motorcycles. It is always “Bajaj Pulsar” or “TVS Apache”. Similarly, we want to be the leader in the electric motorcycle category.

With so many emotions involved around a motorcycle, is there potential to build a community around EV riders, just like how there are regular motorcycle clubs?

Yes! Our future products would target such communities. Right now, we are focused on the 100-200cc segment. Rorr is in the 150cc segment. Our next product will be 100cc.

There has to be a building of community. It will happen eventually. That segment is, of course, different. The daily commuter is not at all an “EV enthusiast” – he is only looking at a smart purchase. Let’s be very clear about that and keep it simple.

You have invested a lot of time and effort in R&D and are clearly here for the long run. But what are the opportunities and challenges in the near future?

This is a new industry and in one like this, the technology cannot be solid from day one. It will evolve. It will do so with consumer feedback and a lot of learning. The robustness will come eventually. Even the ICE wasn’t perfect from the word go.

So there are gaps in technology in the EV space that also throw up a lot of opportunities. A lot of research is happening in battery technology and software. The chassis also, for instance, poses a different kind of challenge, thereby being an opportunity for those making frames.

It is a new industry with its own set of challenges. When there are problems, there must be solutions. There will be jobs created, new business opportunities. This is where the industry is moving.