‘We aim to bring a culture of innovation and possibilities to India’: Saurabh Dalela

Saurabh Dalela, Director, ICAT speaks with Autocar Professional about the homologation, testing and R&D body’s future plans and the aim to bring a cultural shift in mindset towards local innovation.

By Mayank Dhingra calendar 29 May 2023 Views icon4762 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
‘We aim to bring a culture of innovation and possibilities to India’: Saurabh Dalela

The International Centre for Automotive Technology (ICAT) — the nodal homologation, testing and R&D body in North India — is aiming to tap into the growing business opportunity for software and electronics, brought about by the increasing number of electronic control units (ECUs) in vehicles as they transform into computers on wheels. ICAT, which is preparing its vision document, ICAT at 2030, aims to bring a cultural shift in mindset towards local innovation, particularly in the field of electronics and software, by leveraging India’s core strengths of IT, algorithms and programming.

Saurabh Dalela, who took charge as the Director of ICAT in December 2022, says the centre is planning to invest in a new electronics and software lab, while also envisioning setting up an ADAS test track near its existing infrastructure in Manesar, as it anticipates growing demand for testing and validation of such systems which are likely to become mainstream safety features in vehicles the coming years.

As incumbent Director of ICAT, Dalela is responsible for all current automotive / CMVR compliance procedures besides building requisite infrastructure for future demands of the automotive industry. ICAT is planning a new ADAS test track to offer future-relevant testing and development services to its customers.

With consistent evolution in vehicle propulsion systems, how does ICAT aim to tap into the opportunity?
The technological evolution is just widening the opportunity. If we look at the current automotive energy-fuel landscape in India, we have conventional fuels, CNG, biogas, electric, ethanol, as well as hydrogen coming up. The million-dollar question, however, is to decide where to put our money.

The fact that it remains unanswered opens a lot of business opportunities for ICAT. While we are modifying our existing dynamometers to become flexible to work with few different types of fuel, we also plan to invest into the R&D of these future technologies so that we continue to have a good presence when it comes to the fundamental research of these solutions.

What roadmap will ICAT follow to eye business growth from future propulsion technologies?
We have both – a short-term, as well as a long-term approach. In the short term, we plan to modify our vehicle and engine dynamometers to be compatible with gas, electric as well as hydrogen interventions. In the long term, however, we want to create something, for which the discussions have already started for a concept called the ICAT Centre for Innovation and Research. 

The idea comes from the fact that the automotive industry in India has had enough of isolation, wherein the OEMs, academia, and research institutions like ICAT are not ready to depend on each other. However, if we must meet India’s sustainability commitments with indigenous technologies, it is high time that we break these boundaries.

For instance, now is the time to get into electronics, and if we do not take a step, we will miss the bus forever, and will struggle to only play catch up in the future. Therefore, we want to lead this market in a certain way,
and there is an evolving plan which needs approvals, but our intentions are very clear.

How does ICAT plan to foray into automotive electronics and software?
We are planning to invest in software, electronics, and the CASE megatrends, which would also require an ADAS test track that probably does not exist in India at any location right now. There will be new labs coming up. We want to develop new capabilities, for instance, on automotive cyber security. We have a three-year philosophy that spans sustainability, safety, and security, and covers most of the areas of national interest, as well as that with potential of innovation and future opportunities.

In the process, we want to develop an electronics lab, which will have the competency to create our own ECUs, and programme them with specific algorithms. This is the level of specialisation that we want to achieve. We want to tap into India’s strengths in IT, algorithm, programming and languages. Moreover, automotive software is another area of huge potential with the growing electronics content in every vehicle. We will have people who will be able to design and program these ECUs.

'ICAT has been focused on evaluating Advanced Automotive Technology and Advanced Chemistry Cell technologies being worked upon by industry'

In terms of ADAS, while we do have a test track at our second facility in Manesar, Haryana, ADAS is a step towards fully-autonomous driving, and requires special infrastructure for algorithm assessment. For instance, the lane-keep and lane-change algorithms need to be evaluated on a specific infrastructure, which is much wider than a regular test track. Such a facility must be at least 20 metres wide to simulate traffic coming from behind, as well as simulate an urban scenario. We are probably going to look for a different facility, but likely in the vicinity of our existing infrastructure in Manesar.

How would ICAT differentiate its electronics offerings from established players catering to global OEMs?
While the existing technology suppliers are creating innovative solutions, when it comes to setting up an infrastructure in India, there is a clear reluctance. Unfortunately, the electronics industry is still not getting into our country, and we have a role to bring a culture of innovation and possibilities to India. This is where we want to make a mark and show that most of the things are possible to do in India. It is perhaps the mindset that is holding us back as the technology and ecosystem is already well established elsewhere. I believe the opportunity is in India right now, as we already are the fifth-largest car market in the world.

Any product that has been validated well in India has the potential to do very well across the globe, but the reverse is generally not true. However, the true spirit of make-in-India is still lacking, and we think that it is time to move forward, and not just make in India, but design in India as well, because when it is for India, it is for
the world.

How optimistic are you about the business case for the new infrastructure?
We are very optimistic about the success of the new infrastructure as the business already exists in the industry. The only factor is the reluctance from the industry, as well as academia. The industry perception is that organisations like ICAT might be slow. While this reluctance is understandable, it can be broken through. Once that is done, we are optimistic that we can tap into the business, for the simple reason that many a time, OEMs outsourcing a particular job to an overseas firm, are unaware that the same services are being offered domestically. While offering these services in India, and starting from scratch could mean reinventing the wheel, it would now be on a global scale.

How does ICAT plan to fund its ambitions? What timelines are being targeted to set up these labs?
While we might not have the required capital, or the grants, we are looking at an innovative model wherein we could explore sharing the revenue with the original equipment supplier until the cost of the equipment is fully paid off. Since we are a neutral organisation, and not associated with any vehicle OEM, we have a strategic advantage that makes it possible for us to leverage such innovative capital infusion measures to grow our business. We must do it as the quantum of money required is quite significant, and we do not have that kind of capital.

We are in the process of preparing a vision document called ‘ICAT at 2030’ and these new facilities are part of that. While all of this is an idea right now, we want to proceed in this direction as it is the only way forward for future growth. We have set ourselves a three-year target to come up with this new infrastructure. We should be able to see these labs come up by end-CY26.

Are the AIS-156 Phase-II battery test standards delaying new model introductions from OEMs?
The important aspect is to consider that under what circumstances our country has been creating standards. There have usually been two circumstances, firstly, when we are a little passive, for instance, getting into action after witnessing an accident, and in such a situation, everyone is happy about the formulation of a standard.

On the other hand, when a standard is created proactively, it is for safety, and always leads technology. This, however, meets resistance, for the simple reason that it might affect business as usual, and some might find it beneficial, while others, a bit challenging to comply with. Usually, the case is that nobody is prepared for a disruption, which is always the solution.

ICAT's existing infrastructure at its Site-II in Manesar, Haryana includes an oval test track with multiple tracks such as steering pad and ABS test track on the inner periphery. The nodal agency is authorised to homologate vehicles on all CMVR compliance parameters including emissions.

The area of EV batteries is lagging in our country due to various reasons, but by bringing these (AIS-156 Phase-II) standards, we are leading the technology, and encouraging people to invest into it. Once the standards are there, everyone knows the rules of the game. Therefore, the AIS-156 is being fair to everyone, and is a great initiative for the country. It is the right thing to do.

What has been ICAT’s role in the overall calculation of FAME-II incentive assessment?
The government’s notifications have been very clear and there has never been any confusion. There is a qualification process, which includes certain tests, as well as inspection points, which, when cleared, make the OEM eligible to the subsidies under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme. The authority of qualification lies with bodies like ICAT, and it is upon our recommendations that the Ministry takes care of the incentive roll out to an OEM’s products, which have cleared both FAME as well as CMVR homologation requirements.

While there have been established OEMs entering the EV segment, the space has also seen the foray of several new entrants who have no idea how a certification process works. So, ICAT has been making these players aware about the entire process, and what certification entails. We are trying to help these customers by explaining to them the relevance of all testing parameters.

The next incentive scheme is the PLI, wherein the policy is not talking about EVs, but advanced technologies to come to India. In this case, ICAT has been focused on evaluating Advanced Automotive Technology (AAT) and Advanced Chemistry Cell (ACC) technologies being worked upon by companies eyeing benefits under this government scheme. Strategically, this is a great way to move forward, and is the need of the hour.

Is ICAT enhancing manpower to execute the growing testing load?
The big challenge which the entire industry faces, and as do we, is to find the right skill and talent. In our trade, it is very important to be following the spirit of a standard, rather than getting into its fine print. Talented people, who are more knowledgeable and can understand the spirit of the law, are the most sought after, and that is where we find it challenging.

We are looking for people with a certain skill set that will help us in the days to come. If we talk about battery technology, these skill sets focus primarily on chemistry, which is a relatively new area for everyone. Moreover, the industry is in a situation where a lot of different chemistries are still being explored beyond lithium-ion cells. It is a continuously-evolving space and which technology would find its place, would depend on a lot of factors, including geopolitics. So, we are looking for people with a drive for innovation, understanding of chemistry, as well as having a mindset to be able to connect various chemistries with geopolitics.

This interview was first published in Autocar Professional's May 15, 2023 issue.

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