Diesel to reign supreme for now, says Ashok Leyland CTO

Despite the increasing presence of electric, hydrogen and CNG options for commercial vehicles, Indian roads are still a ways away from saying goodbye to diesel.

By Shahkar Abidi, Ketan Thakkar and Amit Vijay M calendar 25 Jan 2024 Views icon14335 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Diesel to reign supreme for now, says Ashok Leyland CTO

While the rumble of diesel engines still dominates Indian roads, the future is a multi-track highway paved with electric, hydrogen and CNG options. This, warns President and CTO of Ashok Leyland, Dr N Saravanan, is throwing challenges in the works for legacy original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like their firm.

“The challenge for all OEMs is investing in existing technologies in addition to all the new range of technology cropping up,” Saravanan told Autocar Professional on the sidelines of the Symposium on International Automotive Technology (SIAT), an event organised by Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) in Pune. “The key is in forming partnerships, as you cannot do it alone.”

Saravanan, who is steering the commercial vehicle giant through a fuel-type, free-for-all, added that developing modular platforms that can accommodate different fuels can help reduce complexity and costs.

This juggling act isn’t just about appeasing environmental regulations but about staying ahead of the curve in a rapidly evolving market. Customers, Saravanan noted, are increasingly demanding fuel-efficient and sustainable options, and ignoring this shift could leave OEMs sputtering in the dust.

Tiding over with trucks

Diesel, which accounts for nearly 95% to 98% of the current commercial vehicle market, is expected to continue to be a major fuel for the foreseeable future in India — primarily because diesel can provide the range and payload capability required for long-haul trucks. Also, industry estimates suggest it will take around 10 to 15 years for meaningful volumes of alternative fuels to arrive in the market, as the demand for diesel vehicles still remains high among customers.

Speaking about emission norms, Saravanan explained that while BS6 regulations have already been implemented in India, adding to their costs, future emission norms like the Euro 7 could further up the expenditure of OEMs. The adoption of alternatives like EVs, CNG, LNG and hydrogen can help lower emissions compared to diesel, but Ashok Leyland, he said, aims to achieve zero emissions by 2048. In fact, they are working on developing low-carbon and zero-emission technology options to meet these goals.

Top executives said that the small commercial vehicles sector could expect to see 20% to 30% penetration of EVs by the end of the decade. Ashok Leyland, on its part, is currently working on pilots with customers to test EVs and learn about the nuances before larger commercial launches. In fact, the automotive firm is working on unveiling new EVs in the market within the next few months. 

Electric buses, Saravanan said, will drive more adoption going forward, especially for intracity travel. CNG buses will see a spike in use, but electric buses will still be challenging from the purview of the total cost of ownership for intercity buses. 

“More importantly, you see FAME-2, FAME-3 and so on rapidly driving intracity travel,” he added, highlighting the large presence of electric buses already in this segment, whereas in the intercity segment, significant presence is still a long way off despite the current traction.

Hydrogen vs LNG

Hydrogen fuel cell technology, Saravanan pointed out, is currently expensive and complex when compared to other options like CNG. Ashok Leyland, though, is testing buses fired by hydrogen fuel cells in challenging high-altitude conditions to learn faster. He expects to see the first set of hydrogen-based ICE trucks coming to the market in the next 2 to 3 years.

LNG, on the other hand, provides better energy density than hydrogen due to being liquefied, allowing larger fuel tank capacity for long-haul trucks, the industry veteran noted. Plus, it’s far less challenging to store in comparison. However, since the LNG supply infrastructure is still being developed, its mass-scale adoption by trucks is still a distant hope.

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