I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work," said Thomas Edison. Today’s disruptive times and the era of start-ups are throwing up innovations and new technologies by the day. Typically, companies (across industries) which have dared to dream and have risked a fair bit have always darted ahead of the me-too pack. The Pune-based Bajaj Auto, under managing director Rajiv Bajaj, has preferred the path less trodden, a trend seen in making the Pulsar, India’s first entry-level sportsbike Pulsar, or picking up a 14.5 percent stake (now 47.99%) in the former loss-making Austrian-brand KTM in 2007, among others. For a company which daringly moved out of the scooter business, where it was a leader, to focus solely on motorcycles and three-wheelers, first revealed its quadricycle — then called the RE60 — at the Auto Expo in 2012. It was all set to get a first-mover advantage as a new vehicle category in India but for a number of hiccups, not of its doing, along the way, the Bajaj Quadricycle made to overseas markets first.
It was only in June 2018, six long years after the first reveal, that the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways finally gave the green signal for the quadricycle to be recognised as a new vehicle category and amended the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989.
Bajaj Auto’s diversification into four-wheelers makes for an interesting story. R C Maheshwari, (pictured below) president – Commercial Business, Bajaj Auto, says, "We have leadership in the three-wheeler category, almost like a monopoly. As part of our differentiation strategy, we were keen to find out what improvements we could bring about in our three-wheelers. We found that there is nothing like the three-wheeler when it comes to fuel efficiency, cost of maintenance, running/operating costs and capital costs."
"The only thing lacking was a fourth wheel, because it (three-wheeler) always gives a perception of being unstable. Not that it is dangerous, or brakeless and or has overturned but it does give a perception that it (3Ws) is not a stable product." He adds that during the monsoon, three-wheelers lose their sheen as a preferred mode of last-mile transport among many consumers in India.
The company wanted to offer the same kind of performance, fuel efficiency and space occupied on road, manoeuvrability and turning radius in the new product. "That's when we came to know there is something called 'Quadricycle' in Europe. However, they were made out of expensive carbon-fibre materials, used to transport older people, and were not used on highways. We took up this challenge of making a four-wheeler in line with the European quadricycle standards with the conventional material available in our country," says Maheshwari.
Defining what's Qute
At the time, the Central Motor Vehicles Act, 1989, which defines the regulation and vehicles that could ply on Indian roads, had no mention or provision for the new product being developed by Bajaj Auto. "The challenge was: How do we make sure that this category is created by the government in the Motor Vehicles Act? That’s because it was the first time that any automotive company had attempted in the country after the policy (Motor Vehicle Act) was made," says Maheshwari.
Cabin is Spartan by ‘car’ standards
The company says quadricycle is the only category which has a number of limits put on it like kerb weight not exceeding 475kg, speed, horsepower or length, which it says "no other automotive product" witnesses.
Bajaj Auto first took the covers off the quadricycle at the 2012 Auto Expo, essentially to help the industry and the government understand the product better. Sharing the technicalities behind the product, Maheshwari explains that the Qute is not meant to be a long-distance vehicle, but an ideal intra-city vehicle. He says, most of the cars used in intra-city have high horsepower which is often under-utilised and they also occupy a large amount of space on the road. "It (cars) is actually a compromise and they are inflicting injuries on society at large. There is a need within the city where the speed is limited to around 30-40kph, parking space is a problem, greenhouse emissions, congestion and at the end there is no need to have such large, high-capacity vehicles, which are literally fuel guzzlers on the city roads," says Maheshwari.
How to sell a Quad
The real test though for any new product is the fundamental need of selling it. "Commuting is fundamental to mankind. If it is fundamental, it is has to be the most economical, that's the basic purpose for which vehicles are to be used. Over a period of time, we have attached prestige, comfort to some of them, and consequently, there have been damages specifically when these vehicles are used in intra-city," says Maheshwari.
Digital gauge tells gear position
"What we have tried to do is make a vehicle, whose purpose is to travel within the city. That is its main objective. To enable that, this is the most fuel-efficient vehicle and gives around 35kpl, which is almost around 200 percent more than the cars available in the market. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is around 60gms per km, which is almost 100 percent lower than the lowest possible car, which is available. And in terms of parking space, the footprint is 30 percent lower," reveals Maheshwari.
In an earlier interaction with Autocar Professional, Rakesh Sharma, president – International Business, had confirmed that the company will initially introduce the Qute with three powertrain options — petrol, CNG and LPG. And going with the global trend of electrification, Bajaj will spawn an electric variant too of the Qute.
side-by-side seating is a departure from autos
Interestingly, the company claims to have been able to achieve operating cost of Rs 1 per km for the CNG variant. Citing an example of a family, Maheshwari explains that typically in India families with two or more children ride astride a two-wheeler, a totally unsafe practice. "This vehicle (quadricycle), can give them the same operating cost what a scooter gives, and at the same time space for the family to travel comfortably. It also gives weather protection and makes for less congestion on the road."
Bullish on sales
The launch of the Qute would mark Bajaj Auto's debut into the four-wheeler category. While, the company defines that the Qute is not a car, it would be an interesting to see how consumers react to the product. But will the Qute, used for intra-city travel, impact Bajaj Auto’s strong three-wheeler sales?
Minuscule storage behind rear seat
Answering the same, Maheshwari says, "There could be some cannibalisation as the requirements are a little different from the customer’s point of view. Some want very economical last-mile transport and may continue to travel in three-wheelers. People who don't mind paying a little more for comfort would travel by the Qute. We have also seen that the customers are ready to pay at least 10-15 percent more fare, if they travel by the Qute."
He further explains that at present the fare difference between a three-wheeler and cabs is quite substantial, and hence "the scope is very much there". Maheshwari estimates that around 160,000 to 170,000 of three-wheeler owners leave their business for something else, like taxis, each year. "I am certain this is one business which we can tap. It is very difficult for me to say whether it will cannibalise or not, but definitely we have created the Qute to create a new market altogether, and not replace the current market."
Engine accessed via bumper
According to the industry veteran, the Qute, in terms of features, offers more than a three-wheeler. He says while the Qute may bear a higher sticker price, in terms of fuel and operating costs it is almost similar to a three-wheeler.
Nonetheless, while Bajaj Auto has received the green signal for its new product, it will still have to address the safety aspect, more so with consumer awareness about vehicle safety growing. According to Maheshwari, the Qute has been built keeping occupant and external safety in mind and won't exceed a top speed of 70kph, which is far in excess of average movement speed of 30kph on urban roads.
It’s not fast by any stretch but performance should be fine for town. Stability is leagues better than an autorickshaw’s
What also helps, he says, is the Qute’s weight, which is almost 40 percent of a regular car. The lower mass and weight translate into less impact energy on an individual. Maheswari says, "Instead of putting in a lot of technology to ensure that the crash norms have been met, what we have done is built the technology in the vehicle itself to avoid crash in itself. I think that is the right way to go for safety, rather than building on everything and then enabling it to meet the crash norms."
"From our perspective, the Qute is the safest vehicle, not only safe for people inside the vehicle but also for people on the outside, be it pedestrians, motorcyclists, or the cyclist on the road," signs off a confident Maheshwari.
(This article was first featured in the January 1, 2019 issue of Autocar Professional)
Also read: Bajaj Auto launches new brand identity, plots electric scooter “soon”