In the opening scenes of 90s Bollywood hit Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, a lead character played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, kite in hand, jumps onto a colourful three-wheeler being driven through the rural areas of Gujarat.
The type of vehicle featured in the scene is popularly known as the “chhakada" rickshaw, a three-wheeler found in Gujarat, and manufactured by the Jamnagar-based Chandra family, founders of Atul Auto Limited.
Jagjivanbhai Karsandas Chandra started the company and their ‘chhakada’ auto was one of the first products manufactured by the company and is said to have helped solve transportation issues in the 1970s in rural Saurashtra.
The offices at the Bhayla plant of Atul Auto Limited, located 50 kilometres away from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, present a different picture from the days of the company produced chakkadas.
The reception incidentally takes you down memory lane, with the different vehicles the company has made since the 1970s — from the first diesel-fueled model to the latest electric vehicles.
The Gujarat-based auto manufacturer is a key player in India’s three-wheeler vehicle industry that manufactures a complete range of three-wheeler products that run on diesel, petrol, CNG, LPG and even electricity.
Three-wheeler sales were at 53,019 units in June 2023 in India. According to the data available on the website of Atul Auto Limited, the demand for vehicles has been less this year as compared to previous years. In June 2023, the company sold 1,267 vehicles as compared to 1,818 in the same month the previous year. While the total sales of April and June 2023 were 3,083 vehicles, it was 5,205 in the previous year during the same time period.
In FY-2022-23, total three-wheeler sales in India increased from 2,61,385 to 4,88,768 units, compared to the previous year.
In 2020, despite the effects of the pandemic, the company surpassed Mahindra & Mahindra in terms of market share. More recently in January 2023, Atul Greentech Private Limited, a subsidiary of Atul Auto Limited, launched Atul Mobili and Atul Energie, two electric three-wheelers at the Auto Expo 2023 in New Delhi.
Vijay Kedia, a director in the company, had termed it “India’s Tesla in three-wheelers.”
Journey From Rural To Urban Markets
The company successfully scaled production, leading to 150,000 ‘chhakada’ rickshaws in the Saurashtra-Kutch region. Jayantibhai Chandra, the chairman of Atul Auto Ltd and son of Jagjivanbhai Karsandas Chandra, spearheaded this growth.
The Chandra family's vision extended beyond rural transport vehicles. Their focus was to engineer similar products for the urban and semi-urban markets. As a result, Atul Auto Ltd emerged as a prominent player in the Indian three-wheeler manufacturing segmentl, despite being relatively small in the industry.
Initially manufacturing petrol and gas variants, the company later ventured into the electric vehicle segment. Now, it manufactures battery-powered economic and premium range e-rickshaws and golf carts as well.
They Have In-House Batteries Too
For electric vehicles, a core component is the battery. Atul Auto not only produces EV batteries in-house but the batteries also exhibit a temperature-bearing capacity of up to 65 degrees Celsius.
Atul Auto Ltd's subsidiary, Atul Greentech Private Ltd, has established the assembly of Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries, setting a new standard in heat resistance technology.
The company also managed to resolve the long-standing spark problem associated with Lithium-Ion batteries, mitigating the possibility of accidents.
How Did They Solve The Spark Problem?
"We studied the hazards of the battery blasts in electric vehicles, which was largely due to sparks in a high-temperature environment, which resulted into accidents, where reports of vehicles catching fire and burning on their own started surfacing, this was quite alarming," said Divya Chandra, the programme director of the company.
Divya, who has specialised in energy studies from the US, heads the innovative and technology desk of the company. He aims to ensure that they manufacture vehicles suitable to Indian roads and climate.
"In the first place we focussed on solving the problem of sparks from batteries," he said. Spark happen due to the rise in external and internal temperature.
The team of engineers, under the guidance, supervision and expertise of Divya, started assembling trial battery packs and submerging them in oil.
"Even if the temperature rises and spark erupts out of a heated battery it douses immediately, as it is submerged into oil," said Divya.
The two e-autos launched by the company this January have built-in telematics and battery management systems (BMS), which use the AIS 156 battery pack with an in-house developed temperature-controlled solution to enable the cooling of the battery pack.
The battery packs used in their e-autos are also enabled with the vehicle telemetry system that allows drivers, fleet owners and operators, as well as the company's remote tech desk to access real-time data.
This allows monitoring for remote assistance in case of vehicle failures or breakdowns.
Manufacturing And Demand
Presently, the Ahmedabad (Bhayla) plant of the company manufacture a mix of petrol, gas and battery-operated vehicles, with a present installed capacity to manufacture 60,000 vehicles per annum and scalable up to 100,000 vehicles per annum.
Whereas the company's Rajkot (Shapar/Veraval) plant is a dedicated site for manufacturing a mix of petrol and gas variants and has almost attained the threshold limit of its installed capacity to manufacture 60,000 vehicles per annum.
"Installed capacity to manufacture AIS 156 battery packs is 10,800 units per annum, which can be scaled adding assembly units, as and when required and can be scaled in tandem with present installed manufacturing capacity of 20,000 pieces, as and when required," said Divya.
The change in the FAME scheme, where subsidy on electric vehicles was reduced from 40% to 15%, will likely affect the company, as it will other electric vehicle makers.
The company keenly observing the sudden shift in the demand for electric vehicles, but is confident about the demand from the government segment orders through Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and the Make in India initiative, where the scaling of operations at the Bhayla plant will not be a problem.
Divya told The Core, “There is a demand even from the expats residing in metro cities, who feel the vehicle is much comfortable to drive in a chaotic traffic within the city, for their small day-to-day needs, just using mode button and lever."
The company management has marked Rs 267 crore capital expenditure for Bhayla Plant raising over Rs 113 crore from internal accruals, notes in the company corporate presentation accessible on the company's website.
"We see that electric vehicles demand will pick up slowly and gradually, compelling manufacturing to pick up at the same pace, with the same intent the company has invested heavily into the Bhayla (Ahmedabad) plant. Provision for expansion and in-house innovative tech development for battery manufacturing is seen as an encouraging stimulus for Atul’s EV portfolio," JV Adhia, president – finance of Atul Auto Limited told The Core.