After the fanfare that followed the reveal of the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRiP) in 2006 that aimed to build world-class testing and validation centres at seven locations in the country, the project got bogged down in delays.
What had started with an ambitious investment of Rs 1,718 crore ran into time and cost overruns and is now heading towards an expenditure in excess of Rs 2,280 crore in line with increased prices of equipment and escalating construction costs.
It is now understood that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has approved the extension of the date of completion of the project by two years beyond December 31, 2012 to December 31, 2014 but the project is expected to now end sometime in early 2016, for which fresh approval for extension will have to be applied for.
NATRiP, a flagship of the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, is one of the largest and the most significant initiatives in the sector so far. The project aims to put in place automotive testing infrastructure that will meet safety and emission regulation requirements till 2015 and also deepen India’s automotive R&D capabilities.
Though Nitin R Gokarn, CEO and project director, in an exclusive interview told Autocar Professional that all problems have now been sorted out and work is all set to re-start next year, the question is what really went wrong with such a prestigious project which was to create core global competencies in India’s automotive sector .
Progress, however, got bogged down by contractual and technical hurdles including acquisition of land at various sites, delays in clearances, shifting of utilities with incomplete testing centres and test tracks in addition to expensive test equipment lying unused at various locations.
This led to work coming to a standstill in some locations. This is now expected to start humming while some contracts, taken up for re-tendering, are expected to reach completion by the end of this calendar year.
In other areas, work now in progress will see completion of testing laboratories soon. “We have resolved all issues that impacted the pace of the project. The country’s first pedestrian lab facility is already installed and commissioned at iCAT. A similar pedestrian lab facility as also airbag crash facility coming up at GARC (Global Automotive Research Center) Chennai will be operational by end-November 2014,” says Gokarn.
Facilities that had certain plug-and-play components like certification elements for getting equipment are now over and the lab facilities for those are ready at iCAT while commissioning of certification equipment is on at GARC . Some of these original equipment vendors had abandoned the project and then, following protracted talks, have been brought back on board.
There were also issues regarding civil works and mismatch in requirements related to equipment, the specific requirements of civil works, specific loading requirements and specific utility requirements and its interface with the utility, civil and equipment components at the proposed facilities. As a result, a lot of time was lost but Gokarn says the equipment is still there at the testing facilities and can be used in these labs.
Top-notch global equipment suppliers
The equipment suppliers are believed to be global top-notch players from Europe, Japan and the US. In terms of the project architecture and tech specs, these are top of the line even now compared to those available globally.
The project has been benchmarked against standards that are evolved globally by the WP29 (Working Party 29) at Geneva which works on bringing out several technical specifications in terms of what the standards should be and based on them, benchmarking is carried out.
For example, electro-magnetic radiation norms are fixed and based on that roadmap the facilities also get designs, after taking into consideration existing requirements as well as those for the next decade.
The NATRiP project was conceptualised with an ambitious architecture with various testing laboratories designed to test Euro 5 and beyond emission norms as well as crash facilities.
Gokarn says that several regulations, for instance Euro 5 and 6 emission norms, are currently on the backburner because testing facilities have to be first completed as some of them have a direct impact on road safety. “The inter-linkages are there and if we have the test facility, then the regulation can come into place and that will improve road safety.” Additionally, Euro 5 and 6 norms are also dependent on the rollout of the fuel policy roadmap and will involve investments in the refining capability of the country.
Work from the equipment suppliers side is expected to commence from December onwards and the project head says he is optimistic of a turnaround in 2014. While the revised project cost is pegged at Rs 2,288 crore at the last count, some escalations have to be factored in, of which one relates to foreign exchange volatility. Some equipment has still to be imported and in addition, the entire technical design of the test tracks being laid out at Indore has undergone a change, thus impacting costs.
The NATRiP project had envisaged seven centres – GARC (Global Automotive Research Center) Chennai, iCATManesar, NATRAX Indore, NCVRS Rae Bareilly, NIAIMT Silchar, VRDE Ahmednagar and ARAI Pune. At present, the capex for upgradation of two centres at VRDE Ahmednagar and at NIAIMT Silchar respectively have been completed. There is also a hill driving school at Silchar and Gokarn says that plans are to move a Cabinet proposal on making Silchar an independent unit because it is NATRiP’s first greenfield project.
At Rae Bareilly, land issues still need to be sorted out but the accident data analysis centre has become operational. A pilot project on cashless treatment on the Jaipur-Gurgaon highway is underway wherein engineers are studying accident data analysis.
Work speeds up
Work on upgrading the capability at ARAI, Pune is also underway in full swing and expected to become fully operational by June 2014. This will include additional test cells for the powertrain lab and a small crash facility and lab for fatigue testing. The crash regulations are expected to come into force only after crash facilities are completed under NATRiP.
At iCAT, while work on the EMC lab is yet to begin, work on the powertrain lab has commenced. There was an issue with the crash lab for which the equipment vendor had backed out and is now being roped back. Gokarn hopes that by September-October 2014, the crash facility at iCAT will be functional. Meanwhile, work on the test track is yet to start.
At GARC Chennai, the retendering process has begun for the test tracks of which some are expected to be completed by June 2014. Work is also underway on the fatigue lab and the EMC lab. Issues have bogged the powertrain and crash lab facilities but these have now been sorted out with work about to commence. A work span of 18 months is anticipated for these two laboratories.
At NATRAX, the target for completion of the entire test track is June 2015 once tenders are finalised. The high-speed test track is, however, dependent on the arrival of international equipment such as paver equipments that have to be imported. Early 2016 is the new deadline for all the works to be up and running with no more spillovers.
At the moment, the focus is on establishing the physical infrastructure, the next will be to house necessary skill sets at the labs and thereafter scout for collaborations. NATRiP has nine centres of excellence that will work closely with world renowned labs for R&D.
It is expected that the pedestrian lab facilities will usher in a new era of regulations for vehicles pertaining to pedestrian safety after the crash lab standards have been put in place. Globally first vehicles are crash tested and then, pedestrian tests are conducted.
In India also the same pattern will be followed. Regulations on anti-lock braking systems will come into force once the braking surface is ready at VRDE, Ahmednagar. The current apprehension of NATRiP is that only one test agency might not serve the purpose of the entire industry.
The new car assessment programme (NCAP), which will be activated once the crash lab facilities are operational, will conduct tests for full frontal, rear and side, object-to-car and car-to-car crashes. Based on it, star ratings and labels will be given in terms of the safety of the vehicle on the lines of the global NCAP programme. Some of the members of WP29 are from Europe, US, Japan and India and several other emerging countries and the standards set in WP 29 are to be followed by all member countries so as to ensure equalisation of global standards.
At present, India has several regulations that are compulsory under the Central Motor Vehicles Rules that relate to safety, crash, photometry and head beams. In Chennai, the end-of-life or ELV demo project has been completed. For ELV regulation to be mandated, it would require participation of private players in the dismantling and recycling of old vehicles as government agencies are not mandated to do so.
Gokarn recently headed the committee that investigated the Conformity of Production or COP practices and discovered discrepancies at GM India. He heads a panel that will recommend steps to strengthen these mechanisms and is in the process of submitting a report to the road transport ministry.
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