India has over 6 million auto-rickshaws emitting 21 million tonnes of CO2 annually (as of 2020). The Centre has been making a major push to replace auto-rickshaws–an indispensable part of urban mobility–with electric three-wheelers.
Though electric three-wheelers offer drivers a lower total cost of ownership and higher profitability, auto drivers find it hard to make the switch due to the lack of easy financing options. Enter, Bengaluru-based Three Wheels United.
“In India, traditional banks cannot finance auto-rickshaw drivers. So, they are dependent on NBFCs and alternative financiers who are very expensive compared to traditional financiers. They have an extremely high down payment, making loans not feasible for many drivers. This is the problem we are addressing,” said Cedrick Tandong, CEO and Co-founder, Three Wheels United. The startup claims to provide loans that cover up to 100% of the vehicle cost at affordable interest rates.
Data-driven lending is one of its key differentiators. The firm leverages AI and ML to improve decision making and reduce operational expenses.
- For its portfolio managers: The company has a system that comes up with optimal allocation that minimises the fines a driver would be subject to for underpayment.
- For field staff: It leverages collected data that helps prioritise drivers who need the most attention by providing visual cues and suggestions based on past repayment behaviour, pending amount, trust rating and several external factors like time of the year, vehicle status etc.
Apurv Mehra, CTO, Three Wheels United, spoke about how an insight helped them understand their driver-to-agent trust model better and improve their services.
“We wanted to understand how field agents employ ‘trust’ to ensure timely payments and wanted to see if we can capture and quantify this to improve our services at all levels. We started off by capturing basic trust ratings which portfolio collection agents assign to their drivers and vice-versa. Over time, we were able to use this information along with several other behavioural and usage data to improve our understanding of a portfolio at any given point,” he said.
This gave the startup a new lens to monitor and evaluate the portfolio at any given point and provide actionable insights to portfolio managers and field agents. “Our initial data suggested that drivers with higher trust rating are more likely to repay and cover up when they fall behind due to some unforeseen emergency or extraneous circumstance,” he added.
Three Wheels collaborated with Microsoft Research India and worked closely with all stakeholders to build its technology platform.
It has three main components:
- Cloud services
- Mobile apps for drivers and field staff
- Data and analytics services
The cloud services have several components for powering its internal applications as well as mobile applications. Microsoft Azure powers cloud services. “We took conscious design choices to decouple components in separate services, which allowed us to iteratively work on improving individual services as we grew and added more features,” said Mehra.
The web services are currently deployed on Azure WebApps. But the company is in the process of migrating them to Azure Kubernetes Services. The backend services are written using Spring Framework and the frontend uses AngularJS. Meaning, they write a lot of code in Java and TypeScript. The android applications have been developed using standard Android SDK.
Three Wheels has leveraged Microsoft’s Kaizala application for delivering a customised chat-based experience to its auto drivers in the past but has now moved to its own Android application.
The analytics pipeline helps capture and analyse various activities such as app usage behaviours, vehicle performance, portfolio status etc. It uses Azure IoT Central, AppInsights and AppCenter for collecting telemetry and events which post ETL land on its SQL warehouse. Additionally, it leverages PowerBI for analysis and visualisation.
- Directly finance drivers at an interest rate covering up to 100% of the cost of the vehicle
- Offer various tailored financing solutions to support the shift to electric vehicles.
- Partnering with manufacturers to offer extended warranties, downtime guarantees, and charging access across the cities
- Partnering with large fleet operators to provide an income guarantee
- Working with manufacturers and foundations to buy back pollutive vehicles, which are then scrapped and recycled
“We are taking an ecosystem/holistic approach to electrifying light vehicles in India. This means we do not simply finance our clients, but we have built a product and operating model that is tailored to their needs,” said Tandong.
Second time lucky
Three Wheels United was started in 2010 by Ramesh Prabhu as an NGO focusing on creating a more sustainable auto-rickshaw ecosystem. However, the operating model at that time was not very scalable due to high operating costs and largely paper-based processes since they relied heavily on third-party banks who worked at a slower pace.
The re-invention of Three Wheels United happened in 2017 when they re-incorporated it as a technology company and began to develop technology to scale their community-driven operating model. Microsoft Research India saw its potential and partnered with them.
Three Wheels United was seeded with the help of a program bankrolled by the European Commission. The firm has also raised $1 million in equity financing from various investors including South British Capital, Techstars, and angels.
To date, Three Wheels United has worked with over 30,000 drivers and financed more than 3,000 auto-rickshaws. It currently has a team of 25 employees.
The startup plans to finance 10K vehicles next year and 100,000 vehicles in the next four years. It also plans to begin financing electric 2-wheelers this year.