Martin Uhlarik: ‘We look at design through the lens of sustainability’
Sustainability is a core aspect of automotive manufacturing including design function. Martin Uhlarik, Tata Motors, looks at it more as an opportunity in working towards a carbon-neutral ecosystem.
How do you see global warming or climate change impact automotive design?
As a company we have to make sure we are in sync with these global targets and objectives (to rein in global warming). A designer’s job is to find solutions to problems. So this is not seen as a crisis but an opportunity — not just product wise but also as business.
Tata Motors is making a very big push with respect to electrification and you can see it already with our current market share. We have an ambitious plan of electrifying our entire range. As we go into the next generation of products, it almost offers a white sheet of paper for designers. When you are designing a ‘born electric vehicle’ to meet the targets, it actually creates a blank canvas for the designers to create something new and this is not limited to just the powertrain perspective of auto designing.
From a creative point of view, it is actually very empowering and then of course, it is not just the powertrain but the materials that are used. We are keen about making sure they are sustainable and part of the circular economy so in the end the emission is net zero. For me, it is actually a huge opportunity and exciting.
What kind of risk do the heat islands developing in many regions, including India, pose in terms of designing an automobile? What then are your priorities in adapting to these extreme conditions?
Fundamentally, the first priority would be to address the environment to avoid this kind of extreme weather conditions. In the end our products are mobility products. Their job is to take a person from point
A to B and also take a person safely to point B from A. That has to be always the chief objective of our products.
We need to also get ahead of the curve and make sure that we are not part of the problem in terms of creating an environmentally-friendly product. Younger customers will have a completely different value system over the next few years in terms of what they expect. If your company is not responsible, they will simply not engage in your brand.
How can extreme heat or frequent flooding impact the overall product lifecycle?
Any sort of extreme weather creates turbulence in the lifecycle of the vehicles as also road conditions. Whether it is the typology of the vehicle we are designing or the capabilities we are creating, all these conditions need to be addressed. Ultimately the solution is not just about creating a vehicle that will work during flooding, it is actually preventing the flooding from happening in the first place — so essentially it is also about influencing climate change in a positive way.
What, in your view, comprises a sustainable product lineup in automotive design?
We are now looking at every aspect of how we design a vehicle through the lens of sustainability. It is not just about whether a material is recyclable, it is also about how it is manufactured, where it comes from, the process to make sure that the product walks the walk.
We have to ensure there is no greenwashing in the production process. So it is important to understand how the vehicle is made, where it comes from, where the power comes from. We need to ensure how employees get to work, what they are eating, how the vehicle is manufactured, the degree of waste material and also the recyclability of the vehicle once its lifecycle is over. It is very interesting, once you start looking from that perspective, how you really see how much wastage there is.
Here is an example — when you make a plastic part and then paint it. Painting as a process is a huge waste of water and a lot of chemicals are left. So what we are doing instead now, we are incorporating the colour of the material in the plastic development and eliminating the painting process.
We are starting with small steps like this but eventually we want to grow this to a hundred percent paint free process, for at least many of the components.
Materials and fabrics are another interesting segment from a designer’s perspective — a lot of patterns, textures and fabrics. New technology is the driving force for creativity in this context.
What percentage of the development process implements sustainable practices at Tata Motors? Do you have a target in place?
I don’t have a specific percentage target. Every product is different. We have a portfolio and some of them are legacy products. With every new product we launch, the target is always to increase the amount of recyclability. The objective has to be to maximise this. If we are thinking about a ten-year target, we have to be looking at minimising emission to almost zero.
How do you balance out the goal of cleaner emissions with the cost and sustainability aspect of designing?
Like it is the case for any new technology development, it usually starts out being quite expensive. But at the same time, there is also the appetite of the market. If you look at Indian customers and what they are looking for in terms of a healthy and safe environment, I see a huge appetite for sustainability. At the same time, India from an innovation point of view can sometimes leapfrog the rest of the world in terms of adopting new technology.
So, given the size of the Tata Group and the resources we can leverage plus the market itself, I am pretty confident. Demographically, the environment is very much on the top of the list for most young people. We have to make sure that our product and our brand reflects that value system, otherwise we are not going to be in business for long.
What are the operational changes underway in achieving a carbon-neutral ecosystem?
First of all the entire design team needs to be brought up to speed in terms of what the objective is. We have to educate and make it part of the overall objective in terms of sustainability and becoming responsible manufacturer. As a result, one starts going through every aspect of the business and process.
Even in the design studio, we traditionally sketched using paper but now we are doing the work digitally, and most of us are sketching on a tablet and we review the work on screen and there is no need to print. Even by doing something small like that, we are eliminating
the printing process and use of paper.
It might be just a drop in the ocean but every drop counts. Everything is done with the lens of being environmentally responsible. We are creating a chief sustainability office in the organisation whose responsibility is to audit the design process. Then of course, designers are looking at how they can implement these processes in the manufacturing area.
Could you list out your top five design modifications for vehicles to be future ready in a carbon-neutral ecosystem?
First thing is safety and the second is lightweighting. The third aspect would be maximising recyclability of the products. We also need to make sure that the process is as less disruptive as possible. And finally, the product needs to be able to communicate the brand’s value system effectively.
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