December 15, 2012: Dr Timothy Leverton, R&D chief, Tata Motors
Tata Motors' R&D chief is an old hand in the automotive business. Dr Leverton, who has earlier been with BMW and MG Rover, talks about the varied range of activities at Tata's Engineering & Research Centre, in a candid chat with Sumantra Barooah.
What are the key focus areas at the ERC (Engineering & Research Centre) currently?
One of the key areas is lightweighting. There’s already 5-10 percent less weight (in the new range of medium commercial vehicles) than the outgoing products. This is because of the use of high-strength materials, careful design of the chassis platforms and that in combination with the latest engine/combustion technologies to get better fuel economy. We are also working on downsizing technology, which is, increasing power density, reducing cylinders, reducing friction. We are exploiting all those technologies so that we get the right weight of driveline and the right combination of cost and performance and fuel economy. The second area is connectivity. It’s probably a different type of issue in consumer-driven passenger cars where the need for features and interface is very strong. But it’s also an issue in commercial vehicles and we’re starting now with telematics for better diagnostics, maintenance schedule, and keep the vehicle running on the road. The third area is innovation. This is to ensure that we are able to achieve leadership in the segments we operate in through new features and technologies that enable different functionality and improvement in customer attributes. One may add styling here as well. So fuel efficiency, connectivity and innovation in terms of moving ahead and extending our track record, like creating segments (with Ace, Nano) in the past.
Can Tata cars' current 25kpl fuel economy be improved further?
We do see a track forward. Worldwide, we’re seeing a continuum of options. We’ll start with incrementally improving what we have. If we talk about downsizing – we showed at the Delhi Expo in January a 1.05-litre three-cylinder engine derived from a four-cylinder, 1.4-litre engine. This new engine has the same torque, same performance as the 1.4 but is lighter and, therefore, improves fuel economy. And in fine detail, we’ll look at every aspect of the power system and energy balance in the car, reducing parasitic losses, having control of some of the main energy-consuming devices on the vehicle – compressors, pumps and other systems – where we have an on-demand system that only pull energy when needed. We are working to optimise the energy consumption of the car to its application cycle much more precisely. The next step we enter into is the electrification. We’ll start with micro-hybrid technologies which has to do with start/stop or the way the alternator battery system is configured such that you can recover energy under braking or within the cycle, you can charge the battery when the load is off the engine drive of the car and puts that energy into the battery. And then progressively, as you go along, you have a parallel hybrid arrangement where you could use a smaller engine and boost the torque for starting and the main benefit of going into hybridisation is when you start to recover energy. And then as you go up, you go to full battery-electric vehicles.When you get into specifications, you realise the fuel economy benefits. The Manza hybrid we showed in Delhi (Auto Expo) gave us, in the city cycle, 50 percent improvement in fuel economy. A Manza doing 20kpl can now do 30kpl. But this is possible when you can recover the energy. So the question then is how to bring these technologies forward in a cost-effective manner. Battery technology is developing rapidly but they’re still quite expensive. So, we’re developing and working on those things both here and in our European Technical Centre so that we can pick the things to achieve customer affordability and make sure we get good benefits but don’t make the car too expensive. In commercial and passenger cars, we’ve got electric versions such as the Ace electric and the Vista electric. The Vista EV has been running (on tests) for around 18 months.
What feedback have you received on the Vista EV?
Range is always a concern for the buyer of an EV. This one has a range of around 160km and even that gets people concerned as the cars take time to get recharged. In the UK, particularly in urban areas, the average journey daily is about 30-40km. So, there shouldn’t be any concern with the range. In the trials, customers have really enjoyed the product. It’s quiet and easy to drive. We’ve given the cars for trials to customers for 12 months and after that, they don’t want to give it back! The issue with electric vehicles is that the cost is still very high. For the range I have mentioned, one needs quite a big battery which is expensive. That is why in Europe, the demand for electric vehicles is still low.
Are you also looking at lead acid batteries as an option?
Yes, we are. Because as soon as you increase the battery capacity in the car, you can start to introduce energy recovery and that’s a very worthwhile area to look at.
What is the best option to downsize engines?
The problem with downsizing is the start (from standstill). That is because as you downsize, you lose torque and there is turbo lag. The supercharger gives you some more options because you’re driving it mechanically and if you put some different variable ratio, then you can get a good boost from a low engine speed and this is something we’ve seen from different competitors. We need to look at what the range of options is and if we go into very mild hybridisation or micro-hybridisation then you achieve that by having an integrated starter generator or something like that. We have to weigh out the costs and different issues that surround that. A combination of supercharger and turbocharger is already in the market from other OEMs but is expensive. What we’ve learnt through our projects is that only the whole approach will give us the right solution for our market. The supercharger-turbo mix is a nice downsize solution but it doesn’t recover energy. As we go through combustion, clearly we think control is more sophisticated and part of downsizing is variable valve control, boosting, moving to direct injection on petrol engines and then various levels of sophistication in terms of direct injection. So, all these improve the power density and torque of petrol engines and move them closer to diesels. Also the fuel economy is improved, the deficit to diesel engines is reduced. Also, diesels themselves are being improved. Probably, the biggest in that mix we’re looking at is the balance between hybridising diesels, hybridising petrols, as exhaust aftertreatment systems in diesels are becoming increasingly expensive. So with SCR systems and with particulate filters, we look at how we spend that money to get the best overall results. So a lot of what we do is evaluate each of these areas and try to find the sweet spot of cost and performance. What we are concentrating on is how we can continue to provide improving driveability in all driving cycles.
How far are we from seeing hybrid technology in production cars from Tata Motors?
I cannot give an exact timeframe but the fact that we are showing concepts publicly is a clue. In terms of passenger cars, it may be a few years away but in commercial vehicles, we already have micro-hybrid features in the Ace and other features will come year-on-year. We have CNG hybrid buses, parallel hybrid buses and are shipping series hybrid buses to Spain.
From a product pipeline point of view, how will you spruce up the Tata portfolio for better market performance?
We have a very substantial capability in ERC. We have got a huge commitment to investing in and delivering new products in the future. If you look at what we’ve done with commercial vehicles in the last two years, you’ll see we’ve brought world-class platforms. The Ace family, Prima truck and the Ultra truck are all world-class technology platforms. They have been planned with a long-term perspective and future-proofed. We plan to offer not just the entire range of variants but also the range of technologies. The same process has to go through for passenger cars also. Generally, we show the concept cars at Geneva. It’s not so much as to what we are going to do in Europe, but it’s increasingly expressing what we are going to do in the future worldwide. Over the next 18 months onwards, you will see the fruits of our current efforts.
Are you looking to consolidate the number of platforms?
If you look at how passenger cars from Tata evolved, you’ll notice, each time it’s a step up in terms of sophistication, quality and product effectiveness. We’ve been able to actually leapfrog some evolutionary path that some of our competitors have gone through.The philosophy that we’ll follow is not a rigid definition of a platform. For instance, 10 years ago, the platform was pretty much fixed in terms of architecture and definition. We need something more flexible that can leverage the same manufacturing process and facilities.We need to change not just wheelbase but also track width. It’s better for us to think in terms of component modules whether it’s for climate control system or for safety structure and how it is utilised across different products, certainly the powertrain and configuration of the gearbox. Through such an approach, we fill our factories and reduce the amount of new content needed to offer a particular concept to the customer. We tend to think of platforms also in terms of physical, mechanical parts. The electronics architecture of a car, human-machine interface — that’s another area which needs to be thought through and applied.
Fit and finish is an area where Indian OEMs do not seem to have progressed as much as in their technological capabilities. Why is it so?
Fit and finish and craftsmanship is a very complex and perceived quality. We’re organising ourselves differently than we did in the past to address that. We now have a specialist group focusing only on perceived quality. Perceived quality means the gaps between the different interfaces of the different elements of the interior, flushness, the surfacing itself, the geometry integration of the whole design, and the tactile elements of the car and the texture, among others. We have expanded our styling and design capability substantially. This organisational approach to design engineering is being re-engineered to give world-class results. On the supply chain side, we are also looking at suppliers who are also gaining capability and are able to step up and give us the type of parts we want. Our Prima or Ultra trucks, for instance, are capable of running in any part of the world.
What is the status of the innovative air propulsion technology that Tata Motors has invested in and how far are you from commercialising that technology?
We’ve gone through the proof of concept phase. It is a very ambitious project to establish this and we’ve reached a point earlier in the year where we felt that we’ve reached a condition on the engine design, transmission design and also the air storage system where the whole thing works in the way we intended.We now have to improve the efficiency of the engine itself so that we can achieve the usable range we want to have on the different product applications. So we’re looking at commercial and a car application. Over the next few months, we may well be ready to show something. The big difference between an air application and say an electric vehicle is that you can fill up the air tank very quickly, in about five minutes.
Is it fair to assume that because there’s more commonality between the mechanical parts of an air engine and IC engine, the production version of an air-engined vehicle could be put on road earlier than a fully electric vehicle?
Your suggestion is right. It’s still a research project, so I can’t talk about a timeline. It doesn’t require a battery and it has a different cost structure (compared to an EV).
The compact SUV segment is emerging in India. Any such version of Tata’s existing vehicles in the pipeline?
People like the attributes of UVs. Personally, I find the customers in India very similar to customers in Europe. They like to sit higher in the car, they get better visibility and feel safer. When people first came into SUVs to get those attributes, they were buying body-on-frame, big, heavy and thirsty cars. But now the opportunity is to offer them in much lighter and more fuel-efficient packages. So to me that’s a segment which is going to be very interesting. We have platforms which we can consider to offer those types of products.
Something based on the X1 platform?
The X1 is a candidate platform. One of the challenges we have is to work towards a balance between the constraint of working under four metres and a little bit longer. Things like five seats or seven seats. There are a lot of challenges in building a product at that size point.
Finally, what is your top of mind concern as an automotive engineer?
Sustainability and how our products should be best configured to give the optimum combination of lifetime consumption of energy and end-of-life recycle. That’s the biggest challenge and to do that in a very cost-effective and value-effective way is a challenge I personally carry. For example, European regulations have driven huge amounts of innovation but a lot of that is expensive. One of the things that excites me about being in India is to consider what our products should be in 10 years. Looking at the growth of the economy, you realise that emissions are going to go up, as are the number of cars. Therefore, the question is which path represents the right level of responsibility in terms of emissions and offering the experience that people want for themselves, their families, their lifestyles from the products that we have. That’s a fascinating challenge. There is a huge proliferation of different concepts and products. In India we have infrastructure challenges. People want mobility and that freedom. How we provide that in a sustainable way is a thing that I wake up to every Monday morning.
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