As a child, Kapil Shelke was fascinated by gadgets, often tinkering with the insides of his collection of remote-controlled cars to understand their engineering. The passion only increased as he grew older. As a mechanical engineering student at Pune University, he was part of the team which designed the country's first electric motorcycle as a college project in 2009. "Little did we imagine when we started that we would end up creating a high-speed racing motorcycle that runs purely on electricity," he says. "We were barely a year into our research at the time."
The motorcycle, designed and manufactured by 20-something amateurs, went on to win third place in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) motorcycle race the same year, perhaps the most prestigious bike race in the world. Shelke set up Tork Motorcycles in Pune the same year, making electric bikes his single, unwavering focus. Almost every year since then, he has designed a new electric bike which improved upon the last one, naming them sequentially T2X, T3X and so on, which have gone on to win other motorcycle races in various parts of Europe and India, competing successfully against products from the biggest in the global business, such as Honda, Brammo, Yamaha and Ducati.
The next logical step was making electric bikes for layman use. Enter the T6X. "After proving our mettle on race tracks, we decided to utilise our expertise in making commercial electric motorcycles," says Shelke. "We converted a petrol engine motorcycle into an electric one and asked some reputed auto magazines to test it. Their encouraging reviews gave us confidence. We expanded the size of our team to deliver a reliable machine any bike enthusiast would love to own." With a team of 20 engineers, the T6X was built within a record period of 12 months. Unveiled for the first time in September last year, it attracted 1,000 pre-bookings in the first 24 hours.
It is not just the green motor of the T6X that has attracted buyers. T6X will also be the first smart bike in the Indian market, boasting features no other motorcycle possesses - cloud connectivity, integrated GPS with navigation assistance, and more. It has a mix of core proprietary technology, created with the help of Tork's in-house R&D, and custom-designed components, as well as a wide vendor base. It is engineered to run more than 100 km on a single charge, can reach a maximum speed of 100 km per hour, and is comparable to any other 125-150 cc bike that runs on fossil fuels. At `1.25 lakh, it is also the cheapest electric motorcycle in its segment in the world.
"We've called the technology used the Tork Intuitive Response Operating System (TIROS), which syncs the bike with its user's phone through an in-house app, sharing information about the bike's functioning such as the distance it can go before battery recharging will be necessary, the overall health of the battery, and much more," says Shekle. All parts have been locally sourced, barring two - the lithium-ion batteries and the controller. "We are not going to have a large manufacturing set-up." he adds. "Everything has been assembled in-house. This decision has already reduced the cost of development and tooling of the various parts and will make the project much more viable in the long run."
What are T6X's market prospects? So far, the government's ambitious National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP), which aims at having 6-7 million electric or hybrid vehicles of all kinds on India's roads by 2020, has not made much headway. Only 22,000 electric vehicles - four-wheelers and two-wheelers together - were sold in India in 2015/16. But long-term trends work in Tork's favour - air quality and climate change concerns are bound to lead to more and more stringent curbs on fossil fuel vehicles in coming years. Tork is also using lithium-ion batteries, unlike all other electric or hybrid vehicles in the country which still depend on lead batteries. Lithium-ion battery technology has numerous advantages over lead, and their worldwide use has given a huge fillip to electric vehicle sales. However, the price of such batteries - though falling in recent years - remains a concern in the value-conscious Indian market. Shelke professes not to be worried. "We see an ocean of opportunity ahead," he says. "We are confident people will understand our value proposition and develop a liking for our product."
A major impediment to the growth of electric and hybrid vehicles is the paucity of charging points along Indian roads. Shelke plans not only to build and sell electric bikes but also provide widespread charging infrastructure. "Electric vehicle players in India must take their cue from the likes of Tesla in the US and the charging facilities it has built," says Shelke. "We cannot copy Tesla blindly, given our obvious dearth of similar resources, but we have to come up with smarter and more cost-competitive models for charging." As Shelke envisages it, Tork's charging stations will be as sophisticated as the T6X, with their locations available to the bike's users through the mobile app. "We will monitor the stations and shift the locations of those which are not being used optimally to the right spots," he says. Other problems with electric vehicles have traditionally included low power, poor pickup and modest mileage, but Shelke believes all of them will be overcome as big national and inter-national brands join the bandwagon.
Though Shelke is chary of divulging the exact amount, he has already obtained funding from a number of private investors, including Bhavish Agarwal and Ankit Bhati, co-founders of Ola Cabs, and Harpreet Grover, founder and CEO of assessment and hiring platform CoCubes. Under the NEMMP, subsidies are available from Department of Heavy Industries and Department of Science and Technology for research into electric vehicles, which Tork can avail of. Banks are also increasingly receptive to loan proposals. But competition is also in the offing - Hero Group CEO and Chairman and Managing Director Pawan Munjal, for instance, has invested in Bangalore-based start-up Ather Energy in his personal capacity, which will make electric scooters.
The T6X experience is much more than riding a bike. Its smart features and absence of carbon footprint - and all of it designed indigenously - could well change the two-wheeler landscape in India.