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Meet the man behind Reva's success

Anand Sankar in New Delhi | July 05, 2008

Headlines about the rising cost of conventional fuel only bring a smug grin to the face of Chetan Kumaar Maini, a grin that has got wider these days. It's a sweet period indeed for Maini, especially since his electric car, Reva, has finally got an official toehold in New Delhi.

"I got a call from the Delhi government one day and they asked me 'what do you need to launch here?' I had only 25 days to set up my showroom," he says. That, as you may know, is in the bustling Lajpat Nagar market in the Capital, also the address where Maini meets us - handling a steady stream of curious prospective customers all the while.

Maini's tryst with automobiles began when, at the age of 13, he took to go-karts and started fiddling around with them. He moved on to doing mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he also finally decided to specialise in solar-electric vehicles.

Today, he can't really recall why he made that choice but says his father probably had a role to play. "He always used to tell me that if one thinks differently, there would be opportunities."

As Maini describes building his first electric car and racing it across the US, from Florida to Michigan, with fellow electric-heads, you realise that his enthusiasm has clearly not dimmed. He recalls the glory of the World Solar Challenge (which involves racing across the Australian outback in a solar-powered car) that he participated in soon after college.

Drive these cars @ 40 paise per km!
Beat the fuel hike, buy an electric car!

The race became the inspiration for the Hollywood movie, Race The Sun. Maini says his team finished third, beating biggies such as Mazda. "In the process, we raised about a million dollars," he adds coolly.

The money and Maini soon found themselves, in the early '90s, in the midst of California's start-up boom. At the start-up Amerigon, as an active advisor, it occurred to him for the first time that he must develop a car for India and South-east Asia.

"I felt the technology of integrating the electric and the mechanical was tricky. I decided to study and went in for a masters degree in electric vehicles at Stanford. The study was about two crucial elements, cost, and how to manage energy best. I was sure even then that oil prices would rise and environment will be an issue," he says.

It would not be wrong to say that it was but natural for Maini to step into the automotive world. The parent Maini Group, founded by his father S K Maini, specialises in manufacturing high-precision automotive, aerospace and engineering components for marquee names such as Honda, Snecma and Rolls-Royce.

When Maini chose to venture into alternate power sources for automobiles, his family, he says, "was super supportive. My father had tried to make a small car before and he, along with my brothers, kept me going.

I drew a lot of base technologies from them. Their background was a great help when

I needed to find solutions." What came in handy was that the Maini Group had vast experience in manufacturing electrically powered in-plant material-handling vehicles.

The Reva came alive on the drawing board in 1994 in California with a simple brief � an ideal city car that would accommodate two adults and two kids. He moved the project to Bangalore in 1999 to a nondescript factory in an industrial estate on the outskirts.

The car was unveiled at the 2001 Bangalore Auto-Expo. Maini's eyes light up when he describes the debut. "The curiosity the car generated was tremendous, especially among children. We even had a case once where we had to open our showroom at midnight because a child threw a tantrum to see the car."

Today, there is a burgeoning Reva community in Bangalore and about 1,500 of the cars are used in Europe. While Maini feels the oil crunch will fuel innovation and generate research dollars, he looks more to trends such as users in Bangalore teaming up to share charging points free of cost.

Maini's own day begins as he settles into the back seat of his chauffeur-driven, custom-made Reva and hooks up his laptop and mobile. He says he manages to squeeze in as much as possible into a day and that sometimes includes cycling, yoga and a hike with the family!

After a little prodding, he admits to a little off-road motorcycling but the day usually ends with a spin in another customised Reva, which, this time, literally comes supercharged.

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