Ola e-scooters have buyers hurting — physically and emotionally – Rest of World
Until March, Raj, a Bengaluru-based tech worker, was a superfan of Ola, the SoftBank-backed mobility startup that manufactures e-scooters targeted at millennials. Now, he vows never to lay hands on an electric scooter again.
Raj was among the first customers of Ola’s much-hyped e-scooters, putting his name down for a top-end S1 Pro model soon after the company started taking orders in August 2021. He received his scooter on March 6 after many delays and was initially impressed by the smooth ride.
Then, a few weeks later, when Raj was taking his scooter for a spin in the outskirts of Bengaluru, something went wrong. While he was waiting at a stoplight, he briefly pulled the scooter back to create distance with the car ahead. But the maneuver activated the scooter’s “reverse mode,” and the scooter gunned backward at 25 miles per hour, sending Raj flying and leaving him bruised.
If it was a busy road, “I’d be dead by now,” Raj told Rest of World. Raj requested a pseudonym out of fear of political retribution. “The reverse scene was a real trauma!”
Prior to the accident, Raj was part of a community of Ola fanboys that emerged around the company’s promise of “riding the revolution.” Ola, which started as a ride-hailing company, incorporated its electric mobility operation Ola Electric as a separate entity in 2017. Ola Electric became one of the fastest Indian companies to achieve “unicorn status” at that time. Its founder, Bhavish Aggarwal, promised to build the world’s largest scooter factory, which would produce 10 million units at full capacity. These scooters, he claimed, would embrace the clean energy future without compromising on chic design, speed, and long-range travel that the erstwhile e-scooter lacked. The company began delivery of its scooters in December 2021.
Rest of World reached out to Ola Electric with questions and hasn’t heard back from the company.
But to some, Ola has yet to meet those promises, and now Raj is part of another quickly growing community — Ola customers who say they feel betrayed and frustrated by their purchases because of malfunctioning scooters, glitchy software, and unresponsive post-sales servicing. These customers are now protesting the company by setting their scooters on fire, staging protests, and complaining online to get the CEO’s attention.
Ola scooter owners told Rest of World that they regret falling hook, line, and sinker for the company’s marketing hype and tall promises, such as the voice-activated scooter unlock feature, hill hold assists, and cruise control — all that the company has not delivered yet to all customers.
“In a rush to make the ‘future factory’ — the biggest ever factory manufactur[ing] lakhs of vehicles — they had really not done the research and development which was needed for the products,” Vinkesh Gulati, president of the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations (FADA), told Rest of World. After numerous customer complaints and a battery fire, on April 24, Ola announced a recall of 1,441 units.
Faulty scooters and delayed feature rollouts are just one part of the company’s challenges. Over half a dozen senior executives have resigned from the company in the last six months.
Yeshwanth Rao was enamored by the company’s ads and ordered a scooter in December. When he got his scooter in January, Rao, who did not wish to be identified by his real name fearing retribution from Ola, found that the exterior had multiple scratches; a few days later, he noticed an “annoying noise” from the rear wheel. Incensed, Rao messaged Ola Electric’s head of marketing Varun Dubey on WhatsApp. “What is this? You made us wait for nine months and you’re delivering this kind of shitty product,” Rao recalled asking Dubey, who instantly dispatched a team to the customer. Rao said the team examined the issues and delivered a replacement scooter within a week.
But within days, the touch screen panel on the replacement scooter went blank, and software bugs meant Rao couldn’t unlock his scooter. “I warned the Ola management that I am going to burn the vehicle in full public [view], as even after four repairs issues are not resolved,” Rao said. Dubey apologized over WhatsApp texts, offering to fix the issues, and even replace the scooter again, if needed.
“I warned the Ola management that I am going to burn the vehicle in full public [view].”
Rao turned his scooter in for repair, but Ola never returned the scooter. After 15 days, he launched a protest at the company’s distribution center on the outskirts of Hyderabad. He spent nine hours in the scorching heat. A frustrated Rao shouted and threatened to “hit the person who took my scooter to return it to management.” Eventually, local Ola management threatened to file a police complaint about causing a nuisance. “I was afraid after the incident,” Rao told Rest of World. He deleted the tweet that he had posted about the protest. A day after the incident, Ola refunded the full amount that Rao had paid for his vehicle.
Rao feels stuck as the customer service team still hasn’t transferred ownership of his old e-scooter to the new owner. “That’s a serious offense,” said Rao. In India, ownership transfer is a legal process that transfers the rights of the vehicle to the new buyer. Rao has two active Ola scooters registered under his name and claims that Ola’s escalation team has not completed the legal transfer of his bike. “What if the bike is misused? Who will go to jail? I will.”
Rest of Word has reviewed Rao’s communication with Ola management and ownership documents of the scooter. Chief Marketing Officer Dubey quit Ola Electric in early May, days after Chief Technology Officer Dinesh Radhakrishnan’s exit.
Unlike traditional scooter companies, all of Ola’s booking and delivery process happens online. Customers say that without local dealers, aggrieved customers have no one to turn to. As a result, many customers have launched public protests. Sachin Gitte, from Beed in Maharashtra, said his Ola scooter stopped working less than a week after it was delivered, and the company failed to fix or replace it. So, on April 25, he tied a donkey to his scooter and paraded it on the streets with posters that read: “Beware of this fraudulent company, Ola.”
The next day, Prithiviraj Gopinathan, a physiotherapist based in Ambur, a small town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, set his Ola scooter ablaze after the 3-month old scooter left him stranded about 40 kilometers from his home because of a range problem.
According to analysts tracking the sector, one of the most egregious issues appears to be Ola scooters catching fire and burning uncontrollably due to potential battery issues.
On March 26, a video of an Ola S1 Pro engulfed in plumes of fire and smoke went viral, forcing a company investigation. On April 24, Ola Electric put out a statement that it’s conducting a “detailed diagnostics and health check of the scooters in that specific batch and therefore are issuing a voluntary recall of 1,441 vehicles.” The exact reason for the fires has yet to be determined. (Scooters from rival startups Okinawa and Pure EV have also been involved in fires over the past six months, prompting the government to launch an investigation and form a committee of experts to take remedial steps.)
In addition to the fires, dozens of other complaints about Ola’s scooters have surfaced since deliveries started in December. At least two Ola electric scooter owners who spoke to Rest of World said their e-scooters switched uncontrollably into “reverse mode.” The reverse throttle malfunction incident haunts Raj to this day. “I kept on thinking, the primary user [of the scooter] would be my wife to drop my son to school and get back. We have to cross all the busy junctions to go to school,” Raj said. “It’s a potential killer, man. That defect was a potential killer.”
“It’s a potential killer, man. That defect was a potential killer.”
Another recurring issue appears to be battery range, where users experience a sudden drop in the battery from full charge to zero.
Sandeep Lakudzode from Maharashtra received his Ola S1 Pro scooter in early March. While heading home from work one day, the battery range indicated enough charge to travel 62 kilometers, more than enough to complete his 5-kilometer commute. Before then, the charge suddenly dropped to 3%, leaving him stranded on the side of the road. “There was [a] beep suddenly, and the battery needed to be charged to drive further,” Lakudzode told Rest of World.
Lakudzode called Ola’s roadside assistance team, but they never turned up. After an hour, he pushed the bike back home. “I am complaining constantly, emailing them daily, but no reply till date,” Lakudzode said.
A week later, service personnel from Ola visited Lakudzode’s house and claimed to have fixed the software bug. But, Lakudzode said, the battery drop issue persists. “For instance, the battery is at 60% and then you drive for 1-2 kilometers and then reboot, it drastically drops to 50%,” he said. He regrets spending $1,300 on the scooter, and now uses public transportation to get to work. “I don’t take my wife or my son on the scooter,” Lakudzode said. “It’s [the] worst of the worst.”
In its 2021 ad campaign, Ola claimed that its scooters would be capable of going 181 kilometers on a single charge. But when the scooters hit the road, customers say the true range was closer to 135 kilometers. “They created so much false hype in the market. With that false hype, they got so many customers like me,” said Mathamshetty Omkar, an Ola scooter owner based in Telangana.
“The range, and features like cruise control, hill hold assist, music — all those features attracted me. Till now, I’m not able to use one feature I got attracted to,” Omkar told Rest of World.
The surge of customer complaints has prompted the all-India vehicle dealer association, FADA, to raise the issue with federal transport authorities.
Meanwhile, customer frustration is reaching a breaking point. Many Ola customers were particularly miffed when, days before announcing recalls over battery fires, Aggarwal uploaded a video to Twitter dancing to a Bollywood song for a promotional video. “Nice! Your customers are getting seriously injured or worse, fatally injured due to @OlaElectric failures while you’re dancing. Reminds me of Nero,” wrote a Twitter user.
“The dancing video seemed completely tone-deaf to the prevailing sentiment about the vehicles,” Karthik Srinivasan, a personal branding expert who studies Aggarwal’s social presence, told Rest of World. “And when I say sentiment, I’m very conscious that it could be a tiny percentage of the number of vehicles sold. But even then, even if one vehicle was [disastrous], that is potentially a much larger problem for the brand because that will be the perception that will [remain with] people.”
Disappointed customers are now clamoring for answers from Aggarwal. The Twitter handle “Ola Scooter Owners Club,” which sprung up in December 2021 as a fan club to celebrate early adopters of electric scooters, has now turned into a public archive of everything that’s wrong with the e-scooters. The admin of the handle has been blocked by Aggarwal for repeatedly tagging him in tweets that highlight consumer issues. “I have never suffered like this for any product I have purchased in my life,” said Raj, who finally sold his Ola scooter in April.