Interview with Chunky Vazirani, founder, Vazirani Automotive on the launch of the Ekonk
Vazirani Automotive, an Indian start-up, shot into limelight back in 2018 after showcasing the Shul, it's first hypercar at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Now though, the company is back at making headlines again because of its latest creation, the Ekonk. An open-cockpit electric hypercar, which the company claims not only is India's fastest electric car, but also the lightest electric vehicle in the world. We had a chat with Chunky Vazirani, the man behind Vazirani Automotive about his inspiration behind the Ekonk, his targets and more. Here is the interview:
Team evo: What is the whole story behind the Ekonk?
Chunky Vazirani: The Ekonk project started after the first lockdown. But before that I’ll take you a little bit back into our timeline. After we showcased the Shul, it was at a point when we were about two and a half years into the startup. At that point we had the design and had figured out its packaging — ergonomics, packaging of all the components and the battery estimation. That's when Michelin came about and they offered us to host us at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and that was an amazing opportunity for someone like us. We literally put the whole prototype together in 90 days and sent it to the UK. It wasn't something that was planned, it just came along the way and we grabbed the opportunity. After that when we came back, the reactions were really good, people loved the design and wanted to know the specs. At the same time we hadn't done this before, we started from scratch and started pulling together our own tech. Initially of course we were talking to other companies to do our tech, but it just turned out to be ridiculous and chaotic in terms of both money and logistics. If you source the battery tech, a battery has about 4000-5000 cells and even if one of the cells inside goes wrong, what are we going to do? Call the company in Europe and tell one cell is wrong? We’ll have to dismantle the car and remove the whole battery pack to replace that one cell. We had to build our expertise after all.
Basically the major issue with the battery pack and putting it through is the thermal management, which is the cooling system, and the problem is that a lot of these guys, including Tesla does it, use liquid-cooling technology which is a century old tech that is very heavy and is carried forward from the combustion engine times. But of course in the combustion engine times you had temperature like 200 degrees, 300 degrees which the liquid-cooling was amazing for, and we did liquid-cooling ourselves also at the beginning, but as a designer I wanted to make a very simple car and as soon as I imagined the Shul, I didn't see a massive radiator or tonnes of plumbing. If you see Tesla, the network is really crazy. They literally have pipelines going and touching each and every of the 5000-6000 cells that they have in their different models and there's coolant that runs past this plumbing network and goes back to the radiator, so it's a very chaotic system. So we had to develop a totally new cooling technique.
Team evo: So what was the solution that you came up with for solving the heavy cooling components issue?
Chunky Vazirani: What we came up with is a solid state cooling technique. Pure cooling performance wise it's about 80 per cent of what liquid cooling offers, which is more than enough because the threshold for battery is about 60 degrees. The batteries can’t get above 60 degrees, so you just need to make sure the battery temperatures and the cell temperatures are in order. We have developed a unique way of accommodation this tech too, its material innovation - we have a patent on material innovation and also the way we package cells. With only some amount of air from any air intake can cool the whole battery pack, as opposed to having to take it through radiators, transferring it through a liquid and then have the liquid plumbing touch the cells. So we've just cut off these components and our solution reduces almost 70 per cent of the components in the whole battery pack, which is a lot of volume, weight and mass that creates a lot of complexity in terms of manufacturing costs as well. A cooling system of a Tesla which is a $20,000-25,000 vehicle costs about $1,000. That is just for the plumbing, cooling channels and stuff like that. So, it's really expensive if you consider every single car that they sell has $1,000 worth of cooling parts alone. Our system is much better than that of Tesla, it costs a lot less than that, so that's something that we've developed ourselves and now we're looking to license it to other companies, we're already in talk with some companies that are doing some tests and stuff.
So in some sense, we now had this tech that we developed and the Shul progression was on, we had also developed torque vectoring, software, had motors from one of our companies and we had developed the whole integration software too. So we figured it's a perfect time to start working on all the steps that we'd done till now in terms of the battery technology, software, torque vectoring and some vehicle dynamics we want to incorporate on the Shul.
At that time we felt like we should build a stepping stone, a kind of bridge. Because there was no reason at this stage to build a prototype of the Shul as we didn't need the luxury features, the glass or the roof. So what we really built is, we set out to make the lightest electric vehicle ever made, because our battery technology enables us to be able to build that. We felt like let's just celebrate that idea and make the lightest, purest most mechanical electric that we can make. That was the idea, to just have a lightweight space frame chassis, carbonfibre body panels and two electric motors at the rear.
Team evo: Can you explain in detail the mechanics of the Ekonk?
Chunky Vazirani: The Ekonk offers the purest mechanical experience. We have torque vectoring so no differentials at the back, a single speed gearbox and the battery pack which sits between the driver and the motors. The steering is not assisted and of course we still have some cooling, because our technology really is optimised just for the cells, not for the motors and inverters, which get really hot as well. For those we still have a radiator upfront and plumbing and ideally we would like to develop something for that, but that’s not a priority right now. The motors department is something that we source and we work with other companies. We don’t want to build our own motors. This is the setup that we had and we figured, why have two drivers because it's gonna be lighter, we just need one driver, a test driver, so we made it a single seater. That was the idea and of course, aerodynamically once you remove the roof off, the coefficient of drag goes for a massive toss. So you would’ve seen even in Formula one cars with their crazy aero, you would’ve seen the coefficient of drag is something between 0.7 - 0.8, which is pretty high because they have downforce as well. Once we took off the roof, it was quite crazy dealing with the aero on simulations as well. We had no choice but to reduce the drag, we tried to make things a lot more extreme, we made the nose a lot more sharper, the rear wheels are covered, and the aero kind of played the part of designing and moulding the car. But at the same time it's funny how the bodywork turned out so uniquely different from Shul. Yes it has some essence of it, but at the same time if you see how the chassis looks, the rear motors, things like that, have been left exposed because we didn’t need a fully luxurious covered car. We still wanted a car that looks sexy, so it still looks like a spaceship, but it had to be purely functional. It was something very important, as it became a testbed for us.
We did a lot of testing in Mumbai, in closed off areas and then we were ready, we took the Ekonk to NATRAX. We had one round of testing at NATRAX, and once you test at those limits, there’s a whole list of things you want to improve on, certain optimisations you want to make to the software, acceleration wise, torque vectoring wise. In some sense, this would be the car we thought we’d give first to journalists to have a go on it. Once we did the tests at NATRAX, we were 4-5 months away, and now we know the issues and we wanted to fix it before someone else can drive it. That’s what the plan is now, because ultimately, the learnings from this means the Shul will become a more refined product when it's ready. Side by side, development for the Shul is on, the interior design is almost done.
Team evo: Achieving 309kmph is really something, especially for an electric car that's developed in India, but did you always aim for the 300kmph mark?
Chunky Vazirani: For us it was very important that we go across 300kmph, we did 309kmph at NATRAX with the Ekonk, so that was a good feeling. Of course, 309 sounds good but at the same time, when you compare it to international sports cars it's kind of ordinary. We still can make a splash that it's the fastest car India has ever made, we understand that we’re not an established company, we have to realistically step our way up and keep improving things. Acceleration wise we did 2.54 seconds (0-100kmph), still very fast but when you compare it to a Tesla Model S Plaid which does 2 it in just seconds, it's not that fast. For us the limiting factor is that our cars are two-wheel drive, RWD, and as soon as you get a tyre patch to the front axle, it makes a massive difference because ultimately, it's only the rear tyres putting the power to the ground. We have to optimise our rear suspension and motors, the power on the Shul is going to be higher than the motors we’re using currently, so this was a 600-volt architecture, the Shul will be 800-volts, the battery voltage will also be higher. Most of the specs are three quarters of the way there, as we’re still learning.
Team evo: During the top speed run, were you driving the Ekonk? How did it perform and how was the high-speed driving experience?
Chunky Vazirani: Yes, I was driving the Ekonk at NATRAX during the top speed run. I have driven faster than 309 in more refined cars. One time I did it in a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, I also did it in an Ferrari 812 Superfast and those cars felt so refined and I feel like we have a lot of learning and implementation to put together on our car as it felt scary when we were doing the run. I used to wonder why F1 drivers complain about the wind so much, but when driving at the NATRAX at high speed, the wind was pushing my helmet badly and that’s when I realised open cars are a different ball game altogether. Even with the McLaren Elva and stuff, you have to do a lot of trickery to channel the air over the driver. Even with a helmet, it's a lot of wind resistance, it is quite scary. And also because our car is so light, like an 812 is 1600-1700kgs, it is quite stable on the tyres, this car is only 738kg, so the wind actually pushes and moves the car around.
Team evo: Where does the Ekonk stand in terms of the power figures?
Chunky Vazirani: The total horsepower is 722 horsepower, we have two motors in the back, and each motor is 270-kilowatts, each motor revs to about 11,000 rpm, and that’s on the Ekonk, the motors in the Shul will have more than that. For me, RWD is the only way a supercar should be because it's so much more fun. The combination of you working a RWD car is a beautiful feeling. With the Ekonk and the Shul, we’re sticking to RWD. I feel like the only reason why we would be doing a four-wheel drive is to kind of compete on the numbers, and I don't think we're quite yet in that zone because there's just no end to it.
Team evo: Let's talk about the design. Now, you're a designer, everyone knows, and you designed the Shul with Lord Shiva in mind, correct? What was your inspiration for the Ekonk? It is quite similar to the Shul, but it also stands out — did you plan to make it a sister car to the Shul? Which direction were you looking into while designing the car?
Chunky Vazirani: To be honest, with the Shul there was a clear inspiration and there was an ethos that kind of kickstarted the whole concept through my spiritual journey so it kind of overlapped and moulded the Shul together. With Ekonk it was different — there were definitely some learnings that we wanted to take forward on the Shul, so that's why we wanted to keep some of the lines very similar to the Shul in terms of the way that it's constructed, in a way the proportions and shapes aren't affected, but at the same time, at some point because of taking the roof off and tyre sizes are slightly smaller, because it's a one-seater as well, you have some aero that needs to be accomodated. The whole aero process kind of took over from the design process, and then it was really aerodynamics, constant simulations, and making sure that this car is going to be stable because we knew we were going to drive this at high speeds. Again, having an open-seater car and making sure that it is stable, at the same time it has one of the lowest drag co-efficient for an open-seater vehicle. It was important to get the aero right, so it's really sculpted by aero in some senses, so I would say about 30-40 per cent of taking the inspiration and the ethos from Shul's design, and then of course a lot of it was sculpted by aero simulations and a lot of the engineering requirements.
Team evo: What type of a driving experience were you looking for from the Ekonk?
Chunky Vazirani: I think the character of the Ekonk, I mean, ultimately the Shul is going to be our first production car so I want to see the Shul has to be the best driving EV. Ekonk, for us, is it has to be the purest mechanical experience, like we really want to see how far we can push that as an experience and kind of see where we can find a middle ground because even for the Shul we don't want the character to be very, very controlled with the electronics and things like that and we want to see how we get the basics in the character so it's a lot of like character design — as much as it's engineering it's still a very creative space into figuring out what ingredients do we put in, and how we want the food to taste, so again we have to figure out the right ingredients like in Ekonk, the steering is just a direct steering and I think that was a decision for us to reduce the weight first and then of course, see what that experience would be like to have electric motors at the back and no direct steering — that's a combination that's never been done before because we have cars that are so electrically defined that you have an electric assisted steering rack and you have a more refined experience. Here it was all about having that pure, raw mechanical, fast, electric experience. I'm excited to see what others think of it also but I think we still have some work before I can have others drive it.
Team evo: How many components of the car do you plan to produce in-house?
Chunky Vazirani: We produce a lot of components in-house actually. I would say probably, the chassis we do in-house. I would say half — about 50 to 55 per cent because things like the brakes, tyres, battery cells, the electric motors, I'd say about 50 per cent. 50 per cent is completely in-house but at the same time the rest is really something that's not available off the shelf so we really have work together with the companies so about 50 per cent is completely in-house and then about 70 per cent we work closely with suppliers and 20-30 per cent is stuff that's available I guess, in terms of, actually I don't know what's available really! Apart from tyres, there's nothing really available out there that you can go and buy so there's nothing that's really off the shelf you know. With every supplier we just have to work closely, so I would say about 45 per cent we have to work closely with suppliers and about 5 per cent is probably off the shelf.
Team evo: Have you joined hands with any Indian companies?
Chunky Vazirani: After Shul I did meet a few people, I did meet some investors and things like that, and I felt like the vision I have and the essence I have for the brand is so strong and it comes from such a deep love as opposed to any kind of monetary plan or any kind of India domination plan of the EV segment and things like that. It didn't really gel well with anyone at that point and I felt strongly that in my head I really wanted to finish the whole creative process and kind of define Shul from the experience and design standpoint and then probably look at partners for just production. When it comes to the creative stuff I feel like I think I'm very happy being in control, fine-tuning and making sure the vision comes out in the purest way possible, and then after that we'll see in the future if we have the production prowess and we join hands with someone then maybe we can do a slightly mass-ier vehicle, I don't think we would go very massy anytime soon but maybe an SUV, maybe a sedan, I don't know. Never say never, right?
What is the expected time, when can we see the Shul or the Ekonk on the road?
Chunky Vazirani: So, the Ekonk we can take it out right now if you want to see it on the road! The Ekonk, for now is not a priority because it's a single-seater car and we feel like the Shul is more important to us. The Shul strikes the perfect balance of an extreme vehicle and at the same time a very usable vehicle, and it's a very unique experience — the interiors that we've designed, you just feel like the EV cars, the whole EV space is going to start trending towards a more artsy space in some sense where you're just going to buy into the design, you're going to buy into an experience as opposed to buying into numbers because you've seen what's there in the market right now — the numbers are being basically mashed out, like Bugatti, Koenigsegg who've come out and said they're not going to chase numbers anymore. When it comes the electric side, you already have cars that have 2000hp. That's way more than even I can probably use on a car, I'd be scared to drive that car, and when you're looking at most of the audience out there, you don't need more than 1000, 1200hp to be honest. In some sense it's really about designing experiences and that's what our brand is really focused on. The Shul is going to be our first product, we're pushing hard to make it as fast as possible but at the same time we really don't want to compromise on the vision. The thing is, it's not like I don't want it out fast, but at the same time I don't want to compromise on the vision, I don't want to compromise on the quality and I feel like as Indians in the past, I'm not proud of the fact that we compromise so easily and that's something I want to change. Even if it's 2023 or maybe even late 2023 it's still fine with me. I would say somewhere around 2023 is when you should expect the next announcement for the Shul.
We wanted to have some fun while developing the Ekonk,it because we could've put the bodywork of the Shul on the Ekonk and just have it as running around as a test mule and things like that. We thought let's just have some fun doing it, let's have some learning doing it, and let's just make it the most extreme test car that we can make. That's why we set out to build the Ekonk which is a completely different character, but at the same time it's part of the same journey.