The 'G' talk - connectivity in an intelligent scooter

When building an intelligent, connected scooter, there are various decisions around connectivity to be made - do you add Bluetooth, WiFi, Cellular or all of them? The product team was faced with this exact conundrum when putting down the requirements for connectivity on the Ather 450. Here, I catch up with Chaitanya Hegde (@chaitanya.hegde), Product Manager, Software & Intelligence to chat about some of the tech behind connectivity in a smart scooter.

Chaitanya Hegde works on building and improving software and smart features for the Ather 450 and future Ather platforms. When not working, he likes to quiz, consume a lot of pop-culture and try to play the carnatic flute.

First off, why mobile networks over Bluetooth/WiFi?

Mobile networks emerged as the unanimous choice, simply for the seamless experience it provides. Bluetooth and WiFi are both meant to connect two devices together. Mobile networks connect the scooter directly to the internet, thereby reducing dependencies on other devices.

Why not the obvious choice? While Bluetooth and Wi-Fi seem like the obvious choices in terms of long term cost and compatibility, they are heavily dependent on environmental factors and the rider. Bluetooth has a very short range, often out of reach when your scooter is in a parking lot. The data transfer rates over Bluetooth are also slow, which would influence how seamless the navigation and intelligence are on your scooter.

Mobile networks were a no-brainer in this regard. It solves the need for you to connect to your scooter each time you want to use it, and provides near seamless connectivity throughout the city without impacting your other gadgets. Since the 450 is designed for urban commute, it’s very rare to run into areas where network coverage is poor in a city. It also lets you forget about connectivity and focus on the riding experience. Besides, using your phone while riding to fix your navigation or check the time to reach your destination is never a good practice.

With mobile networks we’re able to offer a much better experience with these features:

  1. Push location to scooter and have navigation waiting for you when you are ready to ride
  2. Find the last location of the scooter and track your rides
  3. Get the real-time charge levels of the scooter
  4. Preventive maintenance and real time reporting of issus
  5. Use the smart features on the 450 independent of any mobile device

Wi-Fi is no walk in the park either. Without internet connectivity, Wi-Fi behaves just like Bluetooth but with longer range. To do anything useful with WiFi, you’ll have to connect to a network with an internet connection. This introduces other variables into this experience including finding reliable WiFi hotspots, battery drain on your phone if you choose to create a WiFi hotspot and many more. It’s also hard to make sure there is sufficient Wi-Fi coverage in your parking lot, especially in a basement.

Why not 4G or 5G?

Picking components in the auto industry is a very complicated process, that requires OEMs like Ather to plan for several years in advance. The vehicle concept and specifications were developed back in 2014, when 3G was the standard. Being a new player in the industry, getting hands on the latest tech requires commitments of incredible volume, which was not possible then. Now, 4G and 5G are being actively explored for newer versions coming in the future.

Noise & barriers

Supply chain and production being one roadblock, the other question is if you really do need 4G or 5G. Both are built for low latency applications and high bandwidth usage. A smart scooter does not really need that level of connectivity, since the 450 is not autonomous. 4G works great for video streaming, real time communication and mission critical applications.

After lots of research and testing, it was found that smart features and navigation require about 50-100kB/s, for which even 2G would work, albeit a poor experience, with long load times etc.

Can you upgrade the existing scooters to 4G/5G?

There is a lot of work happening in figuring out different solutions for this. Looking at the landscape now, 3G isn’t going away anytime soon for the next few years at least, so scooters on the road will not face will not have any impact. The dashboard in the 450 is an integrated dashboard, so changing the factory installed SIM from 3G to 4G won’t suffice as an upgrade. It will involve a lot of changes to the modem and the tech stack. We’re working with vendors to figure out a cost effective solution for the upgrade, but it’ll take a couple of years to roll out this solution.

Any more questions on the connectivity in the 450? Post your questions below and @chaitanya.hegde will be around to answer them!

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If Ather is to enter new markets, would they be using the same Ather 450, or will a different modified Ather 450 with support for modular modem be released?

I understand that you guys are looking at a cost effective strategy to upgrading current Ather 450s, but these days, it seems like you can just buy a cheapo smartphone for a few thousand bucks, and it would have far better connectivity and more speed than the hardware in the current dashboard.

By that logic, wouldn’t it be cheap to just replace the dashboard system (except the display, because I assume the display at least is detachable from the dashboard system)?

An alternate question is, is upgrading of current Ather 450s even possible? Disregarding how much it would cost?

Like how much would it cost to replace the entire dashboard system on an Ather 450 right now?

Because even if you guys find it expensive to create an upgrade which would support 4G, I am sure a lot of us would be more than willing to pay for the upgrade, because having the option to upgrade to a newer, faster, and better connected dashboard with more features would seem like a worthwhile upgrade to a lot of people. The important thing is to be able to upgrade in the first place. I think we can agree that a scooter is not a smartphone that we can just buy a new one every few years. As such, having the ability to keep the mechanical portion of the scooter, and merely upgrading the intelligent aspects of the scooter like the dashboard becomes paramount.

It also helps curb buyers remorse, knowing that the scooter won’t be obsolete within a year or two of purchase. I think the sooner you guys can come up with the solution to this problem, the more marketable your product will be.

I sincerely believe that early adopters should not be punished, they’re partly responsible for the success of any new product, including the Ather 450. So I think prioritising the ability to upgrade current Ather 450s, as opposed to simply releasing a new model, should be very important. There’s no point in obsoleting a perfectly working scooter, just because of 3G being phased out. That’s just a small portion of the scooter. So, I would strongly urge you guys to prioritise the ability to upgrade, rather than just developing a completely new system, and obsoleting the old model.

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Good informative points on why 3g network was chosen over other connectivity solutions.

I would like to add from my perspective as a user. First of i would like to share the connectivity cost for each scooter. The basic subscription for connectivity is â‚ą3000/year. So if i do the math i will have data subscription for my home. My mobile and then for each vehicle i buy? Just imagine i want to have two Athers, and i have to by two subscription? Next is the ota updates. With the recent bugs with ota i am forced to buy this subscription because the fix comes via subscription for no fault of the user.
You have also talked that the vehicle is designed for urban areas and shouldn’t be an issue to have network. I have seldom seen in some parts of the city there is no network in my ather. Secondly I received solutions from your customer care that when i didn’t receive ota. To take the vehicle in area where there is network. And the fact is i live in urban Bangalore. So i think your design or r&d team must think about these conditions and not always an ideal lab conditions.

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We keep improving the 450 as we go to new markets and we understand how our products are performing on the field. Removal of the on board charger is one such example. Modularity comes with some design and cost compromises which introduces more issues and complications to the mix. This is a decision taken on a component-to-component basis.

The cheaper smartphones in the market are designed for different use cases - they do not experience the same extreme conditions that a scooter dashboard would go through on the road. We use automotive grade components, which are designed for high reliability and durability.

Upgrading the components in general is currently not feasible - but items we see as pain points in the current customer experience, we will try to fix those the best we can.

This is something we have already commented on in other threads - we are looking into this and we will update you when we have something concrete. In the meanwhile, we are also minimizing data usage (for the same feature set) in the future OTA updates to improve the experience.

We will continue supporting vehicles on the road with new feature updates and improvements - as an early adopter you have been with us through this journey and you will continue to have a great experience.

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One thing to note here is that the AtherConnect subscription cost includes not just the SIM data costs, but costs also for the features - connected Ather app, navigation and associated Google Maps costs, new feature and fix development for the OTA updates etc.
For connectivity - there are a lot of variables. Some which are in our control - as to how to best use the bandwidth and optimize software for that - which we are working on. Some are beyond our control like coverage in densely populated areas - for which we need to depend on our service provider, with whom we continously work with to improve experience.

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Hello Chaitanya, i understand your point. Your perspective is from how you have provided the solutions. I am giving my perspective as an end user.
For your subscription cost, if you charging a premium for such features then i atleast should have an stable update, where if I decide to stop the subscription i can live with it(some issues indicators stop working, no idea when will the bms wake circuit issue will be fixed…). It means the users who don’t take any subscription will have to live with these issues or throw the vehicle. At least not provide additional bugs which weren’t present before.
Plus you have also agreed that some factors are beyond your control. Hence an alternative solution will be to provide a Bluetooth or wifi(i am not debating which is better of them) but and alternate where we can have solutions where everything is in our control.

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