Dr V Sumantran, chairman, Celeris Technologies, and former executive director, Tata Motors and ex-vice-chairman, Hinduja Automotive, has co-authored a book on the future of mobility and the car, which will be out next month. In this exclusive interview with Sumantra B Barooah, the technocrat talks about why policy on future and green mobility in India should bet on a multi-pronged approach, and the future of car ownership.
There's a strong focus for mobility in India to go electric. The mobility roadmap by NITI Ayog earlier this year focuses on it too. Do you feel all electric is the way to go? What is your take on the report?
I think in all of the evolutions of technology, it's very difficult to make a bet on what we think is a right technology today. If I have a criticism about the report, it is this – does it allow enough leeway for what should be a very logical and a very organic evolution of technology? In my view, what we should be pushing forward is electrification of mobility.
Using hybrids as a stepping stone?
I don’t know whether it should necessarily be a sequential hybrid to an electric vehicle. My very simple point is throw it open to competition. There is nothing wrong with a Nissan Leaf, a pure electric, competing with a Toyota Prius, which is a hybrid.
Customers will start to define what they want and I think it should be the role of the administration or the regulators to say, 'I am going to gradually put constraints on how much carbon you can emit for a kilometre of driving'. We should achieve it in multitudinal ways.
I mean a pure EV may be practically useless to a person who is a salesman and who travels 250 kilometres a day and outside urban areas. A hybrid may make a lot of sense for this person. So, rather than confining the domain of technology to limited domains and saying it's got to be pure electric, we should establish our objectives, which is to say, ‘greater harvesting of renewable power lowering carbon emissions for any given journey.’ I think the whole policy will achieve a lot more that way.
I must also commend the policy for at least addressing a number of other issues and that of sharing. I think it makes recognition of the fact that when you share mobility, you actually lower resources used for any given travel. I think there is a lot of good in the report but I think we should be careful that something which is as important as a national policy and a national strategy should not later on handicap us in what we want to achieve.
Some say it may not be wise to focus on or promote only one particular propulsion technology and make another disadvantageous. Some say we haven't reached the limit of internal combustion technology yet. What do you have to say in that regard?
Let’s wind the clock back to about 20 years when we began to see, even in places like Europe, the onset of things like Euro 3 and Euro 4; what we saw was a phenomenal race between technologies. We said everything is okay. Across the spectrum of Europe and North America, we saw tremendous advances in gasoline and diesel engine technology and hybrids. The Toyota Prius became phenomenally successful, and in later or recent years even pure electrics like the Tesla, Leaf and so on. Nothing promotes advance of technology better than competition.
In that period, I was involved in a project with GM in Europe called G90 because it was intended to reduce fuel economy or carbon emissions to 90 grams per kilometre of CO2. This was a highly experimental, aerodynamic small car with a three- cylinder, turbocharged engine. Today, you can go into a showroom and drive out a BMW 3 Series with 90 grams per kilometre of CO2. So, what was once a secret experimental high-tech project is something you can walk into a showroom and buy today.
The first point I would make with that is by saying that you push regulations to demand advances in technology and you’ll get it. The second is, as time evolves, we start to understand new problems – as George Bernard Shaw said, "For every one problem that science solves, it creates 10 more new problems." This is the nature of evolution. We did and initially find advances in carbon emissions, CO2 was getting very rapidly low with diesel. That is why we’ve got phenomenal fuel economy. We were addressing the CO2 part of the environment but what we were neglecting was the particulates and the nitrogen oxides, the NOx emissions.
So, as we started to understand and said, "Hey, wait a minute. NOx emissions are a problem in cities, particulates are a very serious problem in cities and you start to put a clamp on it, then you start to see gasoline start to comeback or may be hybrids and electric. I think the role of regulators must be to define what society wants. We want clean air, low energy consumption, and streets free of congestion.
These are national or global goals, and we must put a bound on this and put a combination of regulatory requirements – fees, levies, taxes, whatever you want. The government and the regulators have so many levers. Most of them don’t even realise they have many levers in their hands and once you use these levers, let technology and marketplace become competitive to drive the best solutions.
In a scenario where India has decided to go electric, what needs to be done? What are the challenges you see, what are the right levers that should move to achieve this goal?
I think certainly in the last 20 years and even longer, the auto industry has moved primarily with two drivers – to deliver what customers want and to comply with regulations which is, in my way of saying, to comply with what society wants.
The only thing that is going to drive technology and automakers and industry is going to be – deliver what customers want, deliver what society wants. These are the two robust and enduring drivers for this industry. So, I think we should start to look at how we are going to make sure the levers align with these issues.
In the case of electrics, I think for sure there must be incentives provided so that electric vehicles are provided at an affordable cost to people. In the long term, I think this will start to pay off in benefits for the country because there are a number of hidden costs related to conventional cars.
In our book which we talk about, we are already providing all kinds of subsidies to conventional vehicles without even realising it. If I let you park free in the middle of a city, I'm providing you the subsidy because that real estate costs a lot of money. So, if we come back and say we want to clean up the air, reduce congestion and lower our carbon emissions, then there is a different way we should look at what we are subsidising. One is to make incentivised, electrified, low emission vehicles. I think there is an equal responsibility to start to prepare the infrastructure.
India is making remarkable strides in generating or increasing its capacity for renewable energy. Great. Now, how can we start to build upon this, start to pull on this and wean ourselves away from dependence on gasoline, oil and fossil fuels? For this we need a policy which starts to look at the national energy balance of what our sources are and how we are going to incentivise and make investments. I think this is a domain that requires a lot of help in investments and technology. We don’t have a single high-technology battery manufacturer or integrator here. We don’t have access to many of the key raw materials that are critical to manufacturing large-scale EVs.
If you look at China, they have addressed these issues; they have incentivised a lot of manufacturers, so you get everything from very low quality to very high quality batteries in China and they are being made at remarkably low cost. Yes, they have subsidies, they have all kinds of state support but they have created an infrastructure for batteries, they have incentivised with their new energy vehicle policy customers to buy these kinds of vehicles.
My fear is, unless we do both the carrot and the stick in terms of influencing how a market moves, we will miss the boat. So there is a lot of work for us to do on the industry side, getting our country prepared, creating the infrastructure for it and creating demand.
Is the goal of having an all-electric fleet by 2030 too stretched a target?
I am not worried about the stretch of the target but I would like to have a more effective and a practical target. I would define the target as a combination of 'I want to reduce emissions by so much and I want to reduce my energy consumption by so much'.
The Tesla car everybody is familiar with – the Model S – has a battery pack that weighs 1500 pounds. So every time you get into your Tesla and drive down the corner to buy a gallon of milk, apart from the car you are carrying 1500 pounds of batteries. That's like carrying a Maruti Swift with you to go buy a gallon of milk! That’s energy, somewhere somebody, whatever grid you have, is producing that energy to move 1500 pounds of batteries through every traffic light. It’s not just electric, let’s redefine what our objectives are.
I come back to the simple objectives – clean air and lower carbon emissions and energy bill and improving the congestion situations in our cities.
Let’s do some crystal ball gazing, Dr Sumantran. Your book, which I believe, is not too far away from launch, will look at the future of mobility and the automobile. If I were to ask you what is the future of the car as we know today and the concept of mobility, say, mid-term future 10 to 15 years, what would it be, and especially in a market like India?
Well, let’s go back to what we said earlier, the future building blocks for the auto industry we talked of – electrification, intelligent or autonomous capability – both because it doesn’t have to be fully autonomous. It could be intelligent, semi-autonomous and the third shared (mobility).
Let's expand each of those. We’ve already looked/discussed the electrification which we said could be hybrids, swappable batteries or pure electric, it could even be hydrogen fuel cells. They are all forms of electrification. We move to intelligent systems and autonomy.
We are already beginning to see people talk about things like pod cars, which we could imagine to be electrified autonomous pods, may be even sleek looking, not the rickshaws. So I sit here take out my smartphone, punch my app and a smart driverless autorickshaw shows up for me to take a ride where I want to. When you dress it up, as they do with sleek pod car concepts, you find some very interesting opportunities. You look at the GM E&V vehicle, you look at vehicles that are being used in Heathrow, and you find a lot of possibilities there. I believe sharing can be one of many things. Is it car sharing? It is workable. Is it ride sharing? It's workable. In each case, I am sharing assets and potentially I am sharing a journey. So again you are making driving efficiency.
All of this, in my view, will co-exist within a layer where we are talking about what we want our cities to be, including smart cities and what consumers are going to be. We have to deal with the millennials, the way they look at life, their priorities, where they want to live and how they want to live and how they want move around.
Our book, therefore, looks at this whole picture of saying it's not just the elements of electrification, intelligent autonomous vehicles and shared fleets. On top of this, how does it exist in a world where we are looking at smarter cities and community of digitised natives for whom pulling up a smartphone and synthesizing a journey on the fly is something that they’re easily used to.
Sometimes, and we say this in the book, the car used to be an indispensable asset and was the most effective way to get from point A to point B, maybe no longer so. Look at Indian cities. Parking is a problem in Indian cities, there are hassles in terms of negotiating a gridlocked roadway and gridlocked city to get to where you are. For a lot of people, all that pain is not worth it.
But in India, the car is still seen as a status symbol and therefore pride is associated with it.
Well, it's amazing that how quickly that pride of ownership takes a backseat. I recently had to drive into London because I had go from Heathrow to downtown London and then go on to the Midlands. It was a complete hassle to have a car with me. I faced the same situation recently when I had to go from Stanford Connecticut into Manhattan. I dropped my car at the park and ride and took a train, a similar thing in Washington DC.
Even ownership, I think the younger generation, certainly in the West and I think it will be here very quickly. In the West, owning a car is no longer a status symbol. In a country or in an economic zone where there are 1.8 cars per family or household, every household has a car and it's not a big deal to own a car.
It's different, I admit, in China and India where vehicle penetration is still climbing but I think our population density and our congestion has climbed even faster. We are already beyond Manhattan in terms of congestion. I think those trends are counteracting one another.
Before ending this interview, I would like to know your views on two key Indian OEMs — Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors. One has witnessed a turnaround in the commercial vehicle industry, and the other is working on a turnaround in the passenger vehicle industry. Also, what do you think Indian companies should do now to arrive in the global stage?
Both those companies are companies where I have spent personal time. Therefore, there is a soft corner in my heart for both of them; so any answer you get from me would be prejudiced. Having said that, I think both have demonstrated tremendous eagerness to advance with products and technology. It’s a tough world out there.
Global competition has a rather free run in India unlike China, so you can have a full spectrum of global competition presence itself here to compete with Indian or local automakers and they come with not only very deep pockets because they are all over 100 billion dollar corporations, but they also come with close to a century, or more than a half-century of automotive experience. They are formidable rivals to take on.
I think companies in India and we should add also the two-wheeler manufacturers – Bajaj, TVS and so on – who have also put up a yeoman fight. They have demonstrated that their skill and talent is remarkable. They have learnt a lot. Their learning curves have been very steep but they are not out of the woods. All of them have to still persevere particularly because, unlike China, we do not have any luxury of protection. We are out in the open, we have to fight and earn our right to survive, let alone become global name brands.
This interview was first published in the August 1, 2017 print edition of Autocar Professional