Ashok Leyland scouts for strategic ties in EV era

by Sumantra B Barooah 01 Sep 2019


Ashok Leyland's battery swapping technology with partner Sun Mobility.

It's been about four months since Dr Seshu Bhagavathula took on a new role of president - New Technologies and Business Initiatives at Ashok Leyland, moving from a stint as its CTO. As the Chennai-based CV manufacturer progresses in its journey, part of which is also a target to enter the top 10 CV makers club globally, it is looking at doing things differently than done earlier. A key change is the new product development approach under the 'Modular Business Program' project kicked off in 2016. The results will be seen now in products.

"With modularisation, our addressable market has gone up. Things that we have not been able to offer before, we can offer from now on," Dr Bhagavathula tells Autocar Professional, during the first media interview in his new role. The modular approach is being taken for both the medium and heavy and LCV businesses. The rollout of the products will be from April 2020.

Dr Seshu Bhagavathula, CTO Ashok Leyland

Dr Seshu Bhagavathula, CTO Ashok Leyland

The modular platform approach is one of the many in-house efforts that Ashok Leyland to enhance value, efficiency and competitiveness in a market that has been largely traditional. But with the automobile industry itself set to transform with various disruptions and the onset of electric mobility, especially in the bus and LCV segments, the company will have to think and act differently.

Collaboration for big move in electric mobility
Electric mobility is one area for which Ashok Leyland has a "big strategy". It has already embarked on it with buses that use swappable batteries, which Dr Bhagavathula says is the first in the world. The battery cost in an electric bus can be as high as 75 percent of the vehicle's cost. Since battery swapping removes a major part of an EV's cost, it can boost adoption of EVs, believes Sun Mobility, Ashok Leyland's battery swapping technology and service partner.

Ashok Leyland's electric buses are already plying in Ahmedabad, where after every 40km they drive into the depot for a three-minute battery swap. The efficiency of its electric buses could go up when the buses, specially designed for e-mobility, hit the market in 2-3 years.

"EVs will become lightweight over time, which will start reducing the cost quite a bit. Today, our buses are not ideally suited for electrification, because we are transitioning from a heavy mechanical to electric transportation," says Dr Bhagavathula. The weight saving can be upwards of 15 percent. The engineering team is also working on other factors like NVH in the buses designed for electrification. 

Ashok Leyland electric bus

An order for 50 Circuit buses from Ahmedabad under FAME II has given a charge to Ashok Leyland's EV drive. 

Sun Mobility is the first major partner for Ashok Leyland in the emerging era of e-mobility. While drawing up new business initiatives for the company, "intelligent partnerships" will be given more weightage. With a vision of being a volume player in the e-mobility industry, Ashok Leyland sees that as a necessity. "In the modem e-mobility value chain, you cannot do everything on your own. You require intelligent partnerships to master the overall value chain. You can't go and start buying companies. So intelligent partnerships are all about new business initiatives," says Dr Bhagavathula. Expect Ashok Leyland to strike some strategic partnerships.

E-mobility is a niche industry as of date, but with battery prices coming down gradually, the technocrat sees that EVs will become a viable and sound option over diesel CVs not too long from now. "(When) the battery prices come down to $200 a kilowatt hour, then you have a TCO (total cost of ownership) parity with a diesel engine cost whenever that happens, which we believe will happen before 2025," says Dr Bhagavathula. He thinks then on could be the beginning of the end for diesels. Not for medium and heavy diesel vehicles though. "Maybe, there's a fuel cell solution for that. We are closely watching that. We're also working on prototypes. We're actually trying to now be battery- agnostic, cell-agnostic and chemistry-agnostic," he says.

But for now, the immediate goal is April 1, 2020 when BS VI kicks in. Along with diesel, Ashok Leyland has also developed CNG and petrol engines meeting BS VI norms.

(This article was first featured in the August 15, 2019 issue of Autocar Professional)