I had a chance to listen to a fascinating session of discussions involving a group of pioneers when attending the 59th LBR LBO CEO Forum at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel recently. The team of Sri Lankans who were going to put the country on the map with some outstanding technology integration was on stage describing their singular goal.
A Sri Lankan team is taking on the world’s fastest electric car
Sri Lanka has been on the map in the recent past and mostly for the wrong reasons. The realisation of this objective should change the picture somewhat and one could hope for further catalytic fallout. It is a tribute that this talented team decided to come together to run this idea through on home soil. Their goal is building a supercar which will accelerate from 0 to 60 MPH in under four seconds.
Another design goal is going for 240 miles in one charge with a top speed of 220 kmph. T
his is an all electric car and in this category the record-holder today is the Tesla Model S of 2014. Tesla’s Elon Musk is well-known for coming up with the PayPal concept and giving rise to SPaceX and he has now moved on to conquering space after electric cars.
The team VEGA, who has formed the company CodeGen, is taking on Elon Musk. On stage were Dr. Harsha Subasinghe (CEO CodeGen), Dr. Beshan Kulapala (Project Manager, VEGA), Tilak Dissanayake (Engineering Consultant), Dashantha Gunaratne (Body Designer) and Supun Amarasinghe (Electronics Engineer).
The rest of the team was there too and they all joined in for the final photo, post-discussion. Having listened briefly to Dr. Harsha on the vision and the thought process under his ‘bonnet’ at an earlier occasion, the event was an opportunity to listen to the story in all its detail.
What a discussion it turned out to be. The logic proved fascinating on why one should have this goal. Yes you are a car enthusiast, yet why pay an exorbitantly high price for a car due to the local tax structure. If the goal cannot be met by procurement why not make it then. Furthermore, to prove that one can indeed achieve this has resulted in team members joining in from various parts of the world to pursue a dream.
Super electric car
The idea had been infectious and this was apparent as one heard of many joining in on a voluntary basis and some others who have left fairly lucrative jobs to be part of this dream team. Their hid
eout today is an exciting location named ‘Trace IT City’, a project of the UDA in the location of the former Tripoli market in Colombo.
Tucked away in a corner in that complex a super electric car is in the making.
Why a super electric car? Are you only going serve people with money? Surely you are not supporting a national cause? The answer was different. If one is to do something and create a buzz, designing a three-wheeler or a four-wheeler for city driving is not the way to go.
Taking on what is clearly on the edge of the spectrum is sure to achieve that. This is the disruptive innovative spirit Sri Lanka clearly needs. How many times have we listened to experts whose expertise has come from passing judgment on all challenges saying this cannot be done in Sri Lanka, please don’t think about it because it is sure to fail, we do not have sufficient talent in this place, our market size is small, what we are teaching at universities are not relevant, etc.
Some use typical financial calculations to ridicule out-of-the-box thinkers. Amidst this negative environment, planners have latched on to sell more of the same and simple value additions to move our economy forward and also expecting some sizeable Middle Eastern and Korean remittances to help us move to middle income status and beyond.
The flyer to the event carried the following question: What has put Sri Lanka on the world map in the past? Rubies, elephants, cinnamon, tea and apparel! Well the flyer was not quite accurate or had been shy in stating the present as they have missed the maids, suicide bombers and boat people.
No disrespect to anyone but in the recent past, we have either benefitted from endowments from nature or hard labour. Our state of high literacy has really not figured in our growth. There is the urgent need to transform our thinking. It is quite distressing to hear senior personnel planning progress only through support from outside. All the planning is about how to entice the outside world to walk in to support us. The rest of the time we set about thinking how we can please those who are coming into help us. Such mindsets stray from ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ thinking.
VEGA is CodeGen’s dream electric car. The name ‘Vega’ has come about from the Sinhala word for speed ‘Vegaya’. The team is quite enthusiastic about the fact that Vega is almost entirely a Sri Lanka product. Thus when the vehicle races from 0 to 60 MPH in under four seconds it will be demonstrating the combined hardware and software prowess of the CodeGen team. At present battery cells and a couple of motors are all what is sourced from outside. These are then formed into modules to give that high horsepower kick. Getting that chemical energy to yield mechanical energy is teamwork.
The audience had financiers and they were saying that their funds would not be available for an enterprise of this nature. Too high a risk they said. Pioneers never get conventional mainstream support. They know it and they would not care, but only a few can move ahead.
CodeGen has the advantage of the startup mindset and the ability to support themselves. Most of them have lived through such situations and typical procurement issues are not with them. I am aware of another local startup of an electric car project which had faced many a problem. Today we must understand the world is changing rapidly and change would happen again and again mainly due to such people. Pity that we never give them a chance!
It is important that vision, perseverance and fortitude be present in teams pursuing dreams. A reminder, although many a magnitude different, is the Apollo program. President John F. Kennedy articulated the vision – “Before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” NASA mounted the program. It must be remembered Apollo 1 burnt on the ground killing the all three members after a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal.
Apollo 1 was to be the first manned mission of the lunar landing program. Do you stop any further work and declare the moon an out of reach destination – a crazy idea with no returns. The USA persisted. Apollo 11 proved the point that who dares wins. Apollo 11 effectively ended the space race which was initiated by the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union and fulfilled the national goal of President Kennedy.
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and declared: “That is a small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Kennedy’s call for action was fulfilled. Of course it was really completed when Neil Armstrong stepped back again on to earth as bringing back the ‘men’ was equally important.
The NASA team faced both tragedy and triumph on their way to the final moon landing. Apollo is a testimony to a collective endeavour. It should be remembered that while NASA persevered, the USA and the establishment believed and supported.
It is this belief in ourselves that we lack. One could identify many an organisation where management appears to be holding on to a pessimistic viewpoint. CodeGen has no such qualms. The men on stage clearly showed that through their words and body language. What a difference such thinking can bring to some of our lacklustre organisations.
When Vega accelerates as promised – in my mind there is no doubt about it happening – it will be an achievement of high standing. For society it is a leap that is a long time coming. We have been planning along the lines of the conventional and the incremental for far too long. I know it is still a work-in-progress and we have not seen even a tiny bit of the prototype. The infectious enthusiasm to me is sufficient proof that here we have a team which will pursue the impossible once the goal is set. Hopefully this pocket of excellence can behave like a DNA strand replicating itself in society. Team VEGA all energy to you!
[The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on email@example.com.]