Testing has come of age in India with NATRAX’s world-class 2,900-acre proving ground in Pithampur, which has 14 test tracks including an 11.3km-long high-speed track and state-of-the-art test equipment. Dr N Karuppaiah, Additional Director & Centre Head, NATRAX speaks on what it takes to become a Centre of Excellence in vehicle dynamics and deliver all-round testing capabilities.
Can you take us through the planning and designing phase of NATRAX? What went into it and were experts from overseas also involved?
We had hired global consultants from IDIADA, Spain who did the master plan and preliminary design. Then we got inputs from the domestic auto industry, leveraged my experience of VRDE and also hired RITES, which helped in the design of drainages and cross-drainage systems through the track. L&T eventually executed
The NATRAX project has been delayed. What were the challenges?
While there was a delay, it would be unfair to say it was so much, considering the magnitude of work and complexities involved. The fact of the matter is that the entire NATRiP project got sanctioned in 2005, and the preliminary design was completed by IDIADA in 2007. After floating the initial tender in 2008, the ground work could only start in 2010, after the last piece of land was acquired in 2009. However, due to some contractual challenges, only 10 percent of the work was completed in the first two years, which led us to terminate the agreement with the contractor in 2013.
The project had to be revived again but by this time the costs had escalated. So, we took a strategic decision to float two tenders — one each for the main high-speed track and another for the remaining test tracks. The tender for the 13 peripheral test tracks was floated in 2014 and the work got completed in 2017. These tracks were inaugurated in January 2018 itself and were opened to the industry immediately.
In the meantime, we took approvals for the HST, where work eventually started in 2017 and got completed last year, to finally get inaugurated on June 29, 2021.
In a nutshell, there were technical, contractual and financial challenges after starting off and all these put together stretched the project timeline but effectively, the execution took anywhere from 3-4 years for completion of all the tracks.
What is the total investment that went into the facility and the expected RoI?
The total project outlay stands at Rs 1,321 crore. As per the initial estimates from IDIADA, the RoI was projected between 9 and 10 years, but that was at a total project cost of Rs 453 crore.
Obviously, costs have escalated and the RoI depends on the incoming load. We are betting big on the HST and expect more traffic. We are also getting prepared for conventional utilisation in the form of assisting OEMs to validate their design targets as well as support the tyre industry for tyre development testing.
We do have a concern that the capacity might not be utilised completely of what was initially projected, so we are also exploring getting customers from Asian or European countries. Furthermore, we are also thinking on the lines of starting non-conventional usage of the track, for instance, allowing supercar owners in the country to experience high-speed driving in a safe and controlled environment.
What are the benefits of the sinusoidal transition curve used at NATRAX over the conventional clothoid methodology?
Primarily, transition is the zone that connects the straight to the semi-circular section on a test track and since we had adequate length (11.3km), we went ahead with the sinusoidal transition methodology, which offers a more seamless change of the roll angle, thereby minimising lateral and vertical jerks inside the vehicle during the transition. The conventional clothoid curve is a more predominantly-used technique but is preferred for tracks which are shorter in length and is also comparatively less smooth in transition.
What is the maximum banking angle at the 11.3km-long high-speed track?
It is 26 degrees where the track has been designed for vehicles to achieve speeds up to 250kph. Since the high-speed track (HST) has a larger radius of curvature, the banking is less deep than what is normally available in other similar test tracks around the world.
What are the various surface materials used and what role do they play at the facility?
The surface design has been achieved in such a way that we get the desired mechanical properties that are different for different tracks. For instance, the noise track requires materials that offer noise absorption coefficient of less than 0.8. So, we have used an iterative mix of materials including asphalt that offers noise absorption properties, residual content and texture depth.
Similarly, for the braking track, the global regulation for motorcycle testing demands a peak braking coefficient of 0.9 and, in case of the handling track, the surface needs to withstand abuse in terms of braking and lateral forces.
Moreover, longevity is very important for any test track as they are not meant for resurfacing every five years. Also, considering Indian temperatures, we have used polymer-modified bitumen as the key material, so as to offer
an average life of up to 25 years. So, the overall material mix has been accordingly worked out in an iterative way to offer the desired properties for various test purposes.
Is NATRAX being approached by OEMs / suppliers for Conformity of Production or developmental testing? What is the industry response thus far?
Being our neighbours, Volvo Eicher Commercial Vehicles (VECV) has already started using the test track, and similarly TVS is using it for testing high-performance motorcycles jointly developed with BMW Motorrad at speeds of up to 150kph.
While there has been a request from Renault-Nissan, Skoda-Volkswagen, FCA and PSA too have started using the track. We also see Tier I suppliers like Bosch and Continental potentially using the track in the future to validate their technology offerings in India instead of going overseas for homologation and developmental testing.
Interestingly, more than OEMs, it is the tyre manufacturers which are the major users of our facility. We are also permitting automotive media publications to conduct benchmarking of high-performance vehicles.
Is the focus going to be more on homologation or developmental testing?
Our centre was primarily meant for developmental testing with a focus on vehicle dynamics as each of the three NATRiP centres — iCAT, GARC and NATRAX — have to transform into a Centre of Excellence (CoE) in a specific domain. For NATRAX, the aim is to become a CoE in vehicle dynamics, and deliver testing capabilities in all areas — longitudinal, lateral and vertical — in terms of the dynamics of a vehicle. We also have a comfort track, handling track and multi-friction braking track to assess the overall dynamics of a vehicle on the road.
In addition to this, a lot of work is being done using CAE and we have installed Kinematics and Compliance (K&C) test machines with six electromechanical actuators to give bounce, roll and pitch motions to a vehicle on the test bed and capture the reactive parameters from the suspension. We also have damper, elastomer and steering test rigs. These design parameters are then fed into the CAE model, therefore, eliminating the need to make multiple prototypes and in essence, helping automotive companies cut their project development timelines.
Moreover, despite not having dedicated facilities for lighting, photometry, EMI and EMC testing, which are available at ARAI, GARC and iCAT, we have been authorised by the MoRTH as a test centre under Rule 126 of the CMVR to undertake vehicle homologation as well.
We have devised a collaborative methodology, wherein Natrax could conduct validation of test-track related parameters, for instance, brake testing, measurement of turning- circle diameter, gradeability and noise levels among others, and accept test reports from either ARAI, iCAT or GARC for other homologation tests. So, we can perform close to 40 percent of the homologation tests, and have applied for NABL accreditation to be able to issue the final homologation certificate to an OEM.
The government has mandated tyre labelling norms from next year. Is Natrax capable of conducting the relevant certification tests?
As part of the tyre labelling tests, there is need for a braking track (for wet-grip testing), noise track (for rolling-noise testing) and a dynamometer (for rolling-resistance testing). While we have the track facilities, we currently do not have a dynamometer and are planning to acquire and install it at the premises. Until then, Natrax would be supporting the tyre industry in the developmental testing of products using the various test tracks at our disposal.
Is the high-speed track capable of conducting tests for EVs and modern safety systems like ADAS?
The range on a single charge of an EV can be tested using the HST. Furthermore, we have almost 10-12 rigs for battery testing as per the AIS-108 standard. These include shock-tester rig and charge emulators among others. We also have a fatigue track to test the reliability in terms of the structural integrity of an EV architecture.
The HST can also be utilised for ADAS testing for optimal functioning of features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, collision avoidance, and blind-spot detection. From ADAS, we can eventually move to the testing and validation of autonomous driving systems.
Are there any further investments / capex planned to enhance the test capabilities?
Given the entire space available, we have a long wish list that includes things like setting up a wind-tunnel, and test centre for tractors and construction equipment. We also have plans for massive tree plantation as well as installation of solar equipment on a large scale, but we are awaiting the government’s approval.
Being spread over 2,900 acres, we have huge potential to become a global automotive test facility. The government has to take a call and perhaps identify private investors to further enhance the offering at the facility. It’s a policy decision and could help leapfrog Natrax to a global level. We can also help industry in R&D in vehicle dynamics and tyre development.
What is the overarching goal of NATRiP and what is the level of cooperation and collaboration between the three test agencies?
Primarily, the plan of NATRiP was to have three new auto hubs in India —including one in the North, South and Centre — with ARAI continuing to remain the nodal agency in the West.
Since so much investment has gone into these centres, it depends on the growth of the auto industry and market demand which would determine the extent to which the true potential of these state-of-the-art facilities could be tapped.
I think there is a transition happening. OEMs like Mahindra & Mahindra and Tata Motors, although they rope in foreign consultants, have started doing their vehicle development in India. As far as MNCs are concerned, Renault-Nissan and Skoda-Volkswagen are among those who have set up R&D centres in India and with NATRiP, I believe they would be willing to shift a part of their global vehicle development to India as well.
This interview was first published in August 15, 2021 issue.