'We are partnering with a lot of national labs for electric mobility'

Aravind Bharadwaj, president, SAE India and head - Technology, Mahindra & Mahindra, tells Autocar Professional's Sumantra B Barooah about the automotive industry to develop a sustainable EV industry in the country.

Sumantra B Barooah By Sumantra B Barooah calendar 08 Sep 2015 Views icon2536 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
'We are partnering with a lot of national labs for electric mobility'

Aravind Bharadwaj, president, SAE India and head - Technology, Mahindra & Mahindra, tells Autocar Professional's Sumantra B Barooah about how the automotive industry along with the government looks to tap various organisations to develop a sustainable EV industry in the country.

Do you feel the EV industry in India is on much firmer ground now than before?

Yes, I agree. There have been several cases in 2008 and 2010 where we had imported EVs and there was an influx of electric two-wheelers. But that is more of a one-off type move. This time there has been a lot of calibration, both from government and industry, to actually work on a right formula, not just for getting the vehicles quickly into the market or incentivising them but also having the R&D components looking at technology development, identifying key technology challenges to make it sustainable mobility.

The technical advisory group, as part of the Department of Science & Technology and Department of Heavy Industry initiative, is actively reviewing project proposals, inviting a lot of new and identifying specific technology domains where we have a potential to do it. How do you bring the talent from government laboratories which are used for space and defence programmes? Can you actually bring the talent and harness it for creating new technologies like batteries, control systems, motors? So we are partnering with a lot of national laboratories too for electric mobility.

So there could be certain gains by collaborating with an organisation like ISRO, for example?

Yes. There are already quite a few organisations which are already part of this Technology Advisory Group (TAG) group like the one in Hyderabad. Others have already put in proposals like motor drive systems and centres of excellence. IIT Madras has established a centre of excellence. Recently we had a TAG meeting, where we are looking at another national laboratory with whom we can make lightweight materials and each domain where they have been successfully for government programs. The key is how do you get it and make it more affordable. The Mars mission was unimaginable at that cost but these are the people who made that happen. Can we actually take that knowledge base and see if it can be done for the automotive cost targets?

Which are the three key areas that you think you can benefit outside the conventional automobile industry?

Battery technology, where there is a lot of work underway, is clearly one. We have also looked at motor drive systems.

Another area which I believe has a huge opportunity inherent to India’s strength is controls and software. More so hybrids than electrics, control topologies and looking at how do you match it to Indian traffic conditions.  Indian drive patterns will play a key role because this is what is going to get you the last bit of efficiency. How can you link the control algorithms with software, which again is our strength as a country? Can you actually marry these independent, silo competencies and put them together into system level integration? This is where we need to do a lot of work. It is important how you make the design and control system robust and also meet the peculiar conditions of our road traffic patterns. It is not going to be something that is in the West which is going to come in and work for us. Hopefully, by getting all different stakeholders together, we should be able to see newer programs and proposals come in.

There is also work in the lightweighting area, which again will boil down to frugal innovation and how you get it at the right price point for the Indian customer to absorb it. It is competing against very mature incumbent technology be it petrol or diesel and one has to see if the cost of ownership is actually beneficial. That is why the government has offered to catalyse the adoption. So when we do the FAME program, we can actually get this kickstarted and get it off the ground quickly. Slowly we should get more participants coming in, otherwise it's a chicken-and-egg situation. There are blocks but everybody will only come in when they see a business opportunity. I hope we are witnessing a tipping point.

There is yet to be an EV maker globally who is doing good business and profits, including Tesla. How long do you think the EV industry will take to stop burning money?

It is a very difficult question. A lot of stars have to be aligned to get it done and this is not for the weak-hearted. In India, the cup is either half-full or half-empty. On one hand, you can say I have very aggressive cost targets to achieve with aggressive design constraints with which I will need to achieve them and high levels of customer expectations to meet and competing against any low cost car manufacturers anywhere in the world.

On the flip side, you can see this as an opportunity because having said all of this stuff, we truly have a problem on environment conditions, energy security, depleting fossil fuels and there is a large consumer market which is available. There are a lot of opportunities for disruption in the market the way you start looking at it.

Lithium is a classic case. It is essentially opportunity charging which significantly dips the cost of ownership. One is incentivisation and the second is statutory regulations. If you are looking at EVs for tourist spots or heritage centres, you are going to limit the type of emission around – that is the next level of incentivisation. Another interesting thing, as shown by the Coimbatore-based Ampere, is looking at a completely different model of second and third tier consumers which is a huge untapped market.

So I would see the situation as a glass half-empty, which is why I say we are in it for the long haul. We believe this is something that not only has an opportunity but also it is our duty to be responsible to do these things.

So do you still believe that India can still take a lead in the EV industry despite China's new energy vehicle policy being so aggressive?

I think we can identify specific domains where we have the opportunity to take leadership. We have a very interesting mix of competencies in the country which not many other countries can boast of. The question is, is this where we are going to place our bet on? So we have to place big bets.

Which, according to you, are those big bets?

Controls is one. But again, it does not require one company, an individual or an organisation to do it – it has to come collectively. That is one of the things we work on at the consortium mode. We have to see how that will pan out. India has the potential but whether the potential is converted into actual results only time will tell.

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