Dave Bennett, VP and GM of Eaton Truck Group’s newly created Asia-Pacific division
The VP and GM of Eaton Truck Group’s newly created Asia-Pacific division tells what it will take to make hybrid transmissions for buses a success in India.
The growing adoption of BRT as a model of sustainable transport, and the government's announcement of a grant for purchase of buses, are changing the nature of the bus market. What prospects does Eaton see in this sector in India?
In city bus, surprisingly, some of Eaton’s latest work has been at the highest end of technology. It’s been about hybrid vehicles, and it was not for a company that was headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. Did we base it on a US-type model? In fact, no. Most of our focus on city bus started in China.We have systematically looked at the bus market and what countries and regions really drive that market, and where we might bring the right solution. Five years ago, when we assessed where the needs might go, we realised that the imperatives would be emissions reduction and alternative-fuel engines, and better overall transportation investment. Then we looked at our hybrid system that is now commercialised and in production, and saw that it could meet the needs in China.Five years ago people might have said all buses would evolve from manual transmissions to torque converter automatics. But Eaton really looked at it and said, there are some inherent inefficiencies you’ll never overcome with an automatic, and we really thought there would be fundamental improvements in reliability and technology in hybrid transmissions. That’s why our focus was on hybrid, and we have been successful in our entries in this segment and learnt an incredible amount at the highest level of technology in the largest city bus market in the world right now. We’d like to bring that experience now into India, which will have an Indian solution.
Is that only the diesel-electric hybrid?
We have also done work on and announced publicly in Chongqing, China’s largest city, work on a CNG-electric hybrid system with Chongqing Hengtong Bus Co Ltd. The city and customers have been running initial CNG systems and they announced last month that they will procure another 50 hybrid systems from Eaton. We also view CNG strategically as critically important in India — as an alternative fuel for a national fuel security policy CNG. And in certain aspects as contributing to lowering emissions. So we’ve done work on diesel and we’ve done work on CNG.
How long ago did Eaton begin hybrid work on buses?
In the 1970s we did some electric vehicles and there really were questions about battery cost, vehicle range, and that stopped the efforts for us for quite a period of time. We monitored what was going on, spent time with the customer, and then in the late 1990s and early 2000s we spent time on Class 4 vans, developing prototypes. And then came a series of opportunities in the 2001–4 period. But during these years we looked at how we could apply this technology to future requirements on buses. For this you needed to have a change in buying behaviour. So we partnered with Foton, and in early 2006 the first operational systems came out. Now we have 850 vehicles, bus and truck, across applications, and growing quickly as you see people having more confidence to order in larger lots.
What conditions does Eaton require to introduce these systems in India?
I think a key part of our vision on these initiatives is that they have to make economic or environmental or policy sense. And in city bus particularly there’s more than just an economic question people are asking. Public policy, for example — it could be easier transportation, a whole variety of questions. So we’ve always stepped back and said, to commercialise these kinds of technologies, what do you have to do so that they sense to people? Eaton’s approach with hybrids, and with other solutions that might come for bus, is: how do you drive modular scale? How do you drive the costs down, how do you make these systems affordable?The focus of the group from the beginning has not been technology for technology’s sake — rather, there’s been a lot of engagement with different government organisations to understand what their objectives are. We’re gaining huge experience in a very aggressive, demanding market like China, and we’d like to get the same kind of experience testing in India. That lets you build up scale, which drives down the acquisition cost and accelerates adoption of the technology in the market.
Is your hybrid for buses based on an existing AMT?
The hybrid was developed first. It’s a six-speed system, but it was developed first, and then we actually adapted it the other way backwards and looked at an AMT system from that experience. The system in Beijing that Foton has developed as a systems integrator has more battery capacity than some of the traditional systems we’ve done.Each OEM has a different systems integration approach, different strategies for different cities. They really look at the duty cycles and affordability, and I think the benefit Eaton brings is flexibility. We’re not saying there’s one system solution. We’re trying to drive commonality, but a lot of the software integration, systems tuning, will depend on the city and the OEM.
So will you have a common platform for your hybrid systems worldwide?
Localisation is critical. Our system consists of a motor-generator-starting device in the transmission itself, but then there are inverter/converters and battery systems, and harnessing, which is not trivial for reliability. OEM installations take a huge amount of work by the OEMs — how do you design this in to make it robust, package the batteries and the power electronics? We have looked to drive scale initially based on some modular platforms, and then we’ll assess localisation as it makes sense in each region or country. Clearly we have a pretty strong team here with field service and engineering and a large engineering centre, which makes India very attractive to move quickly. The biggest piece we’ve learnt on the hybrid systems is, localising your systems engineering or applications engineering first – and then your field service – that raises the success level. So when we look in China and India specifically we have domestic teams that take over that role.
Do you have the bandwidth to work with all the OEMs at the same time?
Our engineering team is global, so we flex resources around the world. And the core team that developed and championed this, is a team based in Galesburg, Michigan. They’ve done the coaching, mentoring, development over a series of two or three years with the core group in China and also at the same time a group in Europe, so that’s raised the capability along, and at the same time we’ve built a pretty sizable team here in India, some of them working on the hybrid programmes.Resource allocation is always critical. I think more important is, which cities, which governments, which OEMs have a vision and a plan of how to make this successful commercially, or from a public policy standpoint? You asked the question of affordability. If you don’t have that, it’s a technology demonstrator and this can consume immense resources. But when you have a clear vision of what you want to do, and what the first few deliverable milestones are, then our confidence goes up to allocate resources to this, as against a project that might be going on somewhere else in the world.
Have you seen an Indian OEM that is likely to give it this kind of success yet?
I think we’re seeing a couple.
Do you see the likelihood of an engagement that will become a commercial success?
In Delhi the discussion on the BRT tender is a very significant change in the market that five years ago we might not have anticipated. I think having that dialogue between the transportation ministry, the OEMs, and the aggregate suppliers is critical. That’s what will bring success up and will bring resources down. In today’s market I don’t think any of us can be throwing resources around. We need to be careful. Eaton is continuing to invest in India – it’s critically important for us – so even if these markets are turbulent, we’re ploughing ahead and have a lot of confidence. But the step on hybrid systems I’d be looking for is some good dialogue with the transportation ministry in Delhi, along with key OEMs, on how we can do this most cost-effectively with the highest chance of success. Our approach has been to find high-level commonality on a worldwide basis, and make sure that our technology works tailored for each market. So we wouldn’t be saying this is a European or North American or Chinese approach. But we’re not at the point where people have actually sat down and said, this is what will work for these cities in India.
So have you talked to cities here?
We’ve had some initial engagement. We have confidence, based on what we’ve seen with our work with the team in China, that we can duplicate that here. We’re just not at a point where we’ve got ourselves enough engagement that we see the solution yet.
From your experience in other markets, which is the entity that could drive such a collaboration? Is it the OEM? Or is the government? Or is there a case where even a technology supplier like Eaton could do that?
In the State or city it takes someone who has the vision — that’s essential. And then there are certain policy leaders who will push their organisation to being in the forefront. They’re not going to waste resources. But they are going to push the concepts, push the evaluations, and take calculated investment risks. So those individuals are out there. I think for Eaton to try to do that alone looks very self-serving. We wouldn’t have the perspective, because unlike for trucks, this is not a commercial solution. With city transportation there are lots of objectives to try to meet, and I don’t think we’re in the right position to make the best choices. We’re not coming at this with a perspective of 50 years or an installed approach that we’re entrenched in. We started out in a new market with some new ideas and now have progressed on them. We’re looking for an open discussion on what has to be different for India. There are unique differences to this market that we have to address.
Would it help to establish islands of excellence, cities like Bangalore, for instance, which other cities could emulate?
Certainly. In Delhi there was a clear requirement around CNG. The declaration by the authorities that this was something in the national interest, this matched their environmental approach, their transportation approach, and their energy independence approach, made a lot of sense for that city. But that clear statement of direction in Delhi was also important for us to make the investment in CNG systems in China. Our approach is, we don’t want to be making investments that can’t help multiple cities, regions, and countries.
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