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Spotlight: Ashwin Mahesh - Insights Into Urban Systems From A Modern Polymath

In our latest interview, Ashwin Mahesh, a modern polymath (ex-NASA Climate Scientist, Politician, Journalist) and co-founder of Lithium Urban Technologies, chats with us about solving urban problems at the intersection of the state, market and society, electric vehicles and a future where energy could be free! We are curious about what sparked your interest in urban mobility - I know Lithium came much later; before that you were working with the metropolitan transport system of Bangalore. Could you tell us a little bit about that? When I came back to India from my stint in the US as a climate scientist, a few people suggested to me that because of the rapid pace of urbanisation in India, cities would be interesting things to study: how they are changing and what we can learn from that. I asked myself - what do I have to contribute to this? I’m not an urban planner, I haven’t thought about cities much. Maybe because of my past work with clouds and data, it occurred to me I could contribute to visualisation - how do we begin to be able to see the city and its problems? My first thought was that we need to collect data that tells you what the city is about. We can characterise the city temporally and spatially and as a result do a few things that others have not been able to do. Second, I felt a need to integrate the various silos that existed (the transport department, the police, the bus companies) into a platform that could be useful for residents. What Bangalore really needed is a Transport Information Service - and at the time, no public steps were being taken to do this, so I said I am going to build a website that collates all of this. 

I was already doing some work on maps and communities and set up Mapunity. We built the platform Bangalore Transport Information System and decided to have the city’s name in it so it could become more search friendly and accessible for users. The traffic police soon got interested, and we did a project together where we took telecomm tower data and converted it into traffic density data - by counting the number of transactions served by each tower per minute, you can tell how the footprint of that tower is changing - it gives you some idea of how mobility patterns in the city are changing throughout the day. This can help you do things like bus services in response.

Then the bus company got interested, and we did some work on route rationalisation with them - creating a direction oriented service instead of destination oriented. I became very familiar with government agencies dealing with municipal issues. I believe that development needs to be ‘circular’ between the state, market and society - which means maintaining a balance and enabling one’s growth to influence the other two continually. This way, there will be less resistance to progress in a city’s development.

I know you’ve worn many policy hats, but focusing on mobility, until this time you were looking at it from an aggregator consultant angle. What made you say, here’s a solution, I want to take this solution and build it as a private company? 

Once you realise that state, market, society, all have roles to play, it becomes easier to ask yourself - what should I be doing in each of these roles? So I do something to help build state capacity, I help build citizen participation in governments, and I do some things to create products and services that can strengthen outcomes in the city. 

Ashwin, can you help us understand a little more about your company Lithium - and how it is developing an alternative view towards urban mobility?

You know, about 4 or 5 years ago, I met Sanjay Krishnan (Founder - Lithium Urban Technologies) at a birthday party. Sanjay and I got to talking about mobility.

We said, it’s one thing to talk about solving problems of today - what about the future? Can we do something future facing as well? The question of electric vehicles came up. One thing we observed quickly was that everybody was saying, well this is going ot happen in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years - they were certain of it. So I said why are we so certain it’s going to happen in the future but not now?

Our tagline at Lithium came from that - Tomorrow’s Transportation Today. Why do people think this can only happen in the future? There are 4-5 reasons for that. Vehicle availability, range anxiety, charging infrastructure, financiability, predictability of goods - which make people think that until these things are sorted, you can’t have EVs as a mainstream vehicle. But once you’ve identified these problems, you can ask, is there any market segment in which these problems don’t apply? And if the answer is yes - you can take that one on right away. The bottomline is to find a starting point and not worry about the entirety of the future. In India, this was the employee transportation market. We followed one of the cars that provided employee transportation at the moment, to see if this two-door car can keep up with it. And of course the EV would run out of charge if you ran it all day like that - so we mounted a mobile charger on the back of a truck and had the truck follow the EV. Over time, we simply figured out that the car could do that the indie cars could do with periodic charging during the day. 

Between our network of supporters, maybe even investors, and a few others, we found the first 2 or 3 believing clients. Now we run about 850-900 cars across the country now in 5-6 geographies and we think that the transition from diesel to electric is going to accelerate and we expect to capitalize on that. We think of the corporate transport movement as only a beachhead, and we want to do a whole bunch of other things.

What are some of the future use cases you are considering?

The short answer to this is … everything. Everything that's done by a diesel powered vehicle today will be done by a clean fuel powered vehicle in the future. Every single market, every single application will shift.

Then the question becomes, which markets have enough aggregate value for us to pursue? We have a matrix of 4*4*5 things that we are looking at.

4 directions in which we can go:

- More vehicle types, like buses in the same market segment

- More market segments, self drive, inter city, airport transfers

- Power and Energy, Infrastructure, you can say I am gonna setup charging infra, source clean power and bundle it

- Data and Analytics, because they have independent value as well, both for market and public good. We are happy to give data to cities, based on what our vehicles report

4 criteria that must be met:

- It has to be "shared" transport. We dont go into things that are not shared.

- It has to be connected

- It has to be modular; it should be possible to render that service at a small scale and multiply and repeat for large scale. Even vehicle design should be modular.

- It has to be viable. Unlike a lot of firms that got into the transportation industry, we don’t have a lot of money. And we also dont think we should burn other peoples money to build markets. We think that a responsible and viable company is what we should build.

There's a common theme of responsibility that runs across all of it. You will notice that I didn't mention clean fuel or electric. We take that as a given.

Lots of people said, why don't you use diesel cars also, while the market develops. We have never done that and stayed away from it.

There are 5 levels of competitiveness for this EM sector, I dont call it the EV sector. For us it's the Energy Mobility convergence. It's not only about electric vehicles. Its about how energy and mobility come together. Mobility is a form of energy actuallly, its energy in motion.

We think there are 5 phases of competitiveness:

(1) Route optimization: Which vehicle should you send where. And frankly, even if you didnt have an electric vehicle, you would do that. Any logistic business should do that.

(2) Leveraging the inherent strengths of an electric vehicle: There are certain things an electric vehicle can do that other vehicles will struggle to match. So the EV is like a marathon runner. You can’t run it in sprints, you will come last. But if you run it in a marathon, and all the other participants are sprinters, you will win.

What does this mean? Distance and Time are your friends if you are an EV. Any vehicle that can run more than 160 kms a day or 16 hours is your friend. Meaning, any application you can find that meets these two goals is your friend.

(3) Application specific vehicle development: If you want to transport a truck full of feathers, can I send you a lighter truck, a cheaper truck to do that job than if you want to transport a bunch of bricks or steel cables. Now in an electric vehicle its much easier to do. I just have to turn off 2 of the 3 batteries and send you the same truck. Let's say I do that, it's enough to transport the feathers, but its also a cheaper truck because the battery is such an important part of the cost of the truck.

So how do you create vehicles where the chassis, the container, the power train, gearbox, motor, battery environment..every single one of these things is customizable? I am working on something called the infinite truck: how can you make a truck that runs for..say..40 years? It will keep renewing itself on the inside.

Is that what you meant by modularity earlier? As a circular economy practitioner, some of my next Qs were focused one exactly that specific aspect.

Yeah, so if you pull this off and you connect it to leasing finance companies that can do long period leasing rather than short period leasing, you can run that truck for 15 years and bring down the monthly cost of owning such a truck. 

(4) The fourth thing is, thinking of delivery as part of the infrastructure.

What is the road were a conveyor belt? What if the road could move? So you go outside and and you tell what you want and the vehicle that is appropriate to perform that service shows up for you.

For example you can say I am Shiva and I want to go to the office or this is my child and I want to send him to school. You should even be able to go super detailed and say I want a comfortable vehicle, I want to be able to sit on the left side, I want to have a tray for eating. You can say anything you want, literally. It then becomes a matter of finding a vehicle customized adequately to provide you that service. 

And you are seeing this as an on-demand kind of process?

Yes, it’s on-demand, but easier to implement on campuses. For example in integrated townships, there are 20 types of mobility that together make up 95% of all travel in and from this campus and you can therefore build out those 20 services and offer them as one integrated solution.

(5) The fifth thing is co-management of energy, mobility and buildings. So essentially you say, building management is not separate from energy management is not separate from mobility management. 

Buildings already have electric power. This is one of the reasons we called the company Lithium Urban Technologies, not Lithium Mobility or Lithium Cabs. We were clear from the beginning that we were building an urban technologies platform. We think these 5-6 pieces together, the actual services for movement, the charging infrastructure, leasing finance, the services environment...just a bunch of other things...procurement, all of that stuff..convert all of it into a platform, first for Lithium, then you can expose it to everybody else. So you should be able to say I want to run a taxi, can Lithium help me finance the taxi? And I want to run a taxi for some company in Singapore, can Lithium give me a network operating centre that I can use for that?

Wonderful, that’s an amazing vision. I have never heard anything as comprehensive, thanks for sharing that Ashwin.

Given your background in environmental science, and experience as a scientist - you understand environmental sustainability deeply from a science perspective as well. Can you shed some light on ecological sustainability in the urban context and how mobility feeds into that aspect of urban design?

I wrote a white paper on accelerating sustainability some years ago. When I was a grad student in climatology in the 90s, the IPCC had just been set up at that time. In fact, one of my advisers was even a member of IPCC, from the University of Washington. I have watched the whole environmentalism conversation develop over the years. I think there are two things we should recognize. We knew the problems 25 years ago,  but that’s not the most shameful part. We even knew the solutions 25 years ago. That’s really disgraceful. 

If we now ask ourselves how, knowing all we did 25 years ago, we haven’t made all that much progress in tackling environmental issues that we face.

Why is that, Ashwin?

I think the answer is partly a nuance. We have talked too much about sustainability and too little about accelerated adoption of sustainable practices. They are not the same thing. Once you understand that accelerated adoption is the goal, you just pursue that. At Lithium, we never sell electric for example. We sell productivity, we sell price, we sell performance. The fact that it is electric and sustainable is a decision we made at the birth of the company, that we are only going to do sustainable stuff. And so, the sustainability aspect shouldnt be part of the argument.  Accelerated adoption should be the argument.

Sustainability should be pervasive and present.

How do we do accelerated adoption? Broadly, there are 5 things you can do for that:

(1) Information and Advocacy: educate more people so they understand sustainable solutions.

(2) The second is a pipeline of innovations:  New stuff that comes out that is just sustainable and also innovative.

(3) The third is that you have to keep investing in businesses of the future. 

(4) The fourth thing is law and governance, you need governments and rules to encourage and support this transformation to accelerated adoption

(5) The fifth is actually research: product research and material science research, like in the world of electrics - you ask questions like how tightly can you pack chargers, how rapidly can you transfer charge, what material surfaces are more suited to harvesting charge from.

I want to double down on a specific point you mentioned - from a circular economy perspective, we are very interested in keeping materials in use for the longest time, almost in infinite loops. In one of your tweets, you alluded to this and said “Why should the entire car be one single box that you have to dump?” Can you share more on your thinking on that? 

So this is what i meant by the infinite truck - this is easier to do for trucks and buses than in cars. I like the volkswagen beetle. I would like today’s performance capabilities of an electric vehicle in the shape of a volkswagen beetle. Now, but you’re stuck because unless volkswagen makes that, you’re not going to be able to get that. But if I owned that shape independent of what’s inside that shape - I could work with product developers to figure out what goes into the car, I should be able to get the car - today’s car with that shape too. Yes, it’s a little different, but I think it can be done. And more easily with trucks, because of the box shape in a way. Modularity really means vehicle development. That the chassis, the battery environment, the power train, the motor, the gear box, the container - each of these things should be configurable things that you can order, almost like a computer when you say - RAM, disc space, screen size. You should be able to configure your car or truck in that way. That’s one. Theres an even bigger thing - modularity should allow you to even change the truck on the fly. A 3 battery truck should be able to run like a 1 battery truck because you’re not using 2 of the batteries. I think that will allow vehicle life to be lengthened. OEMS (original equipment manufacturers) obviously dont like this, they’re used to selling one product every 6-7 years. I think they are going to lose this argument - what will happen is first, manufacturing EVs is a lot easier than manufacturing non EVs. There are far fewer parts and modularity comes easy to the EVs, There will be a lot of light manufacturing. 

My worry is that - in countries that are still developing, we should not be too quick to go into higher kilowatt vehicles. Essentially you’re better off staying with a lighter vehicle - yes they have performance challenges, compared to something more robust, but they also have massive cost advantages, and they are way more accessible to a lot of people with less skill to manage vehicles. I think the light truck will remain a mainstay for the economy going forward. This kind of form factor only really exists in India and a few other countries - not even in developed countries.

On that note, let me ask you a specific question. The last decade has seen an explosion of e-commerce and by extension, a whole new paradigm for urban logistics, which covid has sort of accelerated that. What play do you see for electrics in urban logistics tying into e-commerce?

When we talk about this last mile, I think what we often mean last 5 miles. Most people who tell you about last mile services say- oh you can go from the train station to your office, but that’s not a mile, that’s typically 3.5km or 4km. It’s a little longer than that. I think the competition will come from below - you will get more robust electric bicycles with carriages. Today if you watch a delivery guy, he’s got a scooter, which costs at least 60-70k. You can build a high quality electric bicycle for 25k and build a carriage environment for it, and you get a product that’s less than half the cost of a scooter, and it can do 1.5km trips in the neighbourhood as effectively and quickly as you can do with a scooter. 

There’s this often cited argument that fine, there are tailpipe emission benefits, but really when I switch to electrics, it means really a switch from more efficient diesel to lousy coal in a lot of countries.

Well that doesn’t have to be! At Lithium nearly half the fleet runs on solar power. So typically what happens is that the people who switch first to electric are also interested in clean power. You can find a lot of EV owners have solar panels on their rooftops to harness solar power to charge their vehicles. So it’s the same sentiment that’s driving both - it’s rare to find a guy who understands the ecological value of an electric vehicle but doens’t understand the ecological value of the power source in some way. And I think with the cost of power dropping - coal has become unviable actually. The cost of electric power on the other hand has dropped dramatically and it will continue to drop. In about 7-10 years, I think energy will be free. There’s just no point in paying for energy. If you hit a point where energy is free, you’ll get very different ways of imagining the economy.

What is the future of a free energy society, how might that look? Because you’re talking about a commodity that’s fuelled the industrial agent, it’s been the mainstay, now you’re saying the next 100 years it will be free, so how can businesses make money if energy is free sir?

Energy then becomes an input to something else. This energy goes into mobility and you price the mobility. This energy goes into buildings and you price the rentals on those buildings. In a way it’s like - you don’t sell copper wire separately to a house owner, right? It’s built in. You have to think of it like that. Increasingly, energy can only be an input to something else that is priced. And its own standalone price will be very low. Also there will be guys who will harvest their own energy - they won’t need to pay any money - the grid will need to be reimagined. Autonomous micro-grids could come up. Each house could in theory begin to think of itself as an autonomous micro-grid.

What excites you most about this future that you are foreseeing?

From the circular cities perspective, I just want to make one point. Historically, cities were centres of mass employment based on manufacturing. I think going forward, we are all trying to create cities of mass employment based on services but not many cities can actually do that. I think the services industry cannot be in every city. 

Instead, we have to re-embrace some of the past. We really have to pick the cities as a place of manufacturing again as well. And of course, manufacturing is associated with all sorts of health hazards and soil pollution and all sorts of things but I think there is a way to think more circularly and safely about this, which is to think of the city as a possible place in the future as the centre of re-manufacturing. Not original manufacturing – but how do you take your old tables and chairs and things that are broken down.

There is no reason why a bunch of broken down furniture cannot be reassembled in the cities. There is no reason why even a bunch of broken down electrical goods couldn’t be reassembled with better safeguards.

Thanks so much for this fantastic discussion Ashwin. We were wondering -  is there any quote that you abide by, your own sort of mantra that keeps you motivated and driven solving these hard problems in life?

This is what some people call the Ashwin Mahesh quote as it were -

”Don’t try to solve problems, increase the number of problem-solving people.” 

What is one advice you will give to young people that are starting in the field and want to do something good? 

I normally tell young people to ask themselves a different question from the one that they typically get from older people.

A lot of older people will say, what do you want to be when you grow up? I think we should ask them what are all things you want to be when you grow up?

If you can encourage them to think that they can be more than one thing when they grow up, then they will get a fairer understanding of the possibilities in their life and how to pursue those possibilities in life. A lot of people think Ashwin, you do all these interesting things - I have been fortunate, I was a cloud physicist, I did astronomy, I’ve done work in urban areas, I’ve done journalism, … all kinds of stuffs and actually I think it’s because partly as a child I was fascinated by all these polymaths right - the Da Vincis and the Russells. These are not the people who did one thing well and other things mildly. These are the people who did multiple things really well and I think we should really encourage children to be able to do that. 

Any final thoughts?

On my blog, I have this thing called the 7 four-letter words of living well. Through following these words, you can find the combination of a successful and a purposeful life. And ultimately, I think there is a way of living purposefully - caring about the health and future of the planet and your responsibility to future generations means that you really need to focus on being the best at what you do. And from a high level purpose, there isn't a distinction between the society, the market and the state.

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