Optimistic about growth

The (truck) trailer segment in India is optimistic about growth. It is looking at outperforming its global peers over the medium- and long-term.

Story by:

Ashish Bhatia

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The cancellation of Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes under the guise of ‘demonetisation’ may pose a challenge to the Indian transportation sector, a big chink of which includes the trucking industry, the fact is, the truckers have not lost hope yet. According to the All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), there are an estimated 9.3 million truckers in India. Of these, the number of heavy-duty trucks is increasing year-on-year. There is a distinct movement happening towards higher tonnage trucks. The ban on overloading is driving transporters to look at bigger, multi-axle trucks that can carry more. While October 2016 marked a month of growth for Medium and Heavy Commercial Vehicles (M&HCVs), the sale of truck-semitrailers and truck trailers is on the rise. Rajasthan continues to be the biggest truck-trailer market; Haryana continues to be the biggest car carrier market. The effect of demonetisation may be evident on truck trailer operators, they continue to see growth in the scope of their vision. Industry experts are also optimistic about the growth of truck-trailer segment. This growth, they claim, will ensure that the trailer industry, which is both, organised and unorganised, will post good growth. Truck code may take time yet, and until then, the unorganised bit of the trailer industry may not have a reason to worry about. That does not eliminate their responsibility to build safe and high quality trailers; the fact is, the trailer industry in India is looking at outperforming its global peers over the medium- and long-term.

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Cyclical in nature

A highly cyclical market in India, according to Neha Tayal, Research Manager – Automotive Division of TechSci Research, the Indian trailer segment has been growing. Though it may contribute a mere 10 to 12 per cent of the total commercial vehicles sold in India, it has been growing. Said Tayal, “The segment holds the potential to grow at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of seven to eight per cent, over medium- to long-term. Rajeev Batra, Chief Operation Officer, Tata International DLT Pvt. Ltd., is also of the opinion that the trailer market is looking up. He attributes the growth potential of the trailer market to the focus the government is putting on meeting safety and other standards. Mentioned Batra, “The trailer market growth in FY2016-17 and 2017-18 will be in the region of 10 per cent to 15 per cent respectively.” The trailer market has been growing in 2016. In 2015, it posted a consistent recovery. The recovery started in 2014 after recording the lowest sales in 2013. Till 2020, the trailer market in India is expected to grow at a rate of 10-15 per cent annually. The Indian trailer market is claimed to range between 18,000 and 20,000 units per annum. The market for overburden tippers is said to be between 3,000 and 4,000 units per annum.

Complex market

(Truck) trailer market in India is complex. Over 80 per cent of the market is made up of unorganised players. Many of these are regional players that address regional operator requirements. Players like Tata DLT and Satrac Engineering are part of the 20 per cent organised market. They have been carving out a larger share of the trailer market. Tata DLT, in FY2015-16, sold over 39,000 trailers across various applications such as mining, cement, road construction and material movement among others. According to Batra, the company commands six per cent of the market share in trailers. The mix of business at Tata DLT is the OE business and the aftermarket business. Tata DLT makes trailers to be offered along with Tata Motors’ prime movers like the Tata LPT 4018. It also makes trailers for special application like tip trailers, curtain trailers, running gears, etc., to address the specific needs of the operators. The manufacture of a trailer is a complex task, claimed an industry expert. It is the components (axles, suspension, etc.) used in the manufacture of a trailer, which makes it a complex task, he said. Depending on the nature of application and how much a trailer buyer is ready to spend, organised players like Tata DLT offer York axles, BPW axles, or Fuwa axles. At unorganised players, cost is said to be a prime criteria.

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(Truck) trailer types

(Truck) trailers are broadly classified on the basis of the number of axles they are fitted with. They could have two or more axles. The number of axles is correlated to the load carrying capability of the truck-trailer. It is also connected to the application the truck-trailer is meant to address.

Sidewall trailers and bulkers are used for cement based applications. They constitute 30 to 35 per cent of the overall trailer market. The flatbed and well bed trailer, deployed for steel and steel-coil movement along with skeletal trailer for container movement make up the majority of the (truck) trailer market. They account for 40 per cent to 45 per cent of the market share cumulatively. Tip trailers and tank trailers, catering to road infrastructure, make up 20 per cent of the segment. An estimated two-to-three per cent segment share is made up of Over Dimensional Cargo (ODC) carriers. A minuscule chunk of (Truck) trailers also finds use in highly specialised application areas; they could be fitted with racks, curtains, etc., or heavily customised. A part of the trailer market are also the motor carriers, which ferry cars, two wheelers, trucks and buses from the plant to a dealer. These are often found be as long as 22.5 m. If an industry expert is to be believed, the Government of India recently capped the length of such carriers to 18.75 m. Said S.P. Singh, Senior Fellow, IFTRT, “Driving a good per centage of M&HCV sales are vehicles that move cars and SUVs. Continuing double digit growth of two wheelers (and four wheelers) is also necessitating the need for carriers. Capping the length at 18.75 m instead of 16 m may pose safety issues.”

Regulatory environment

If the lack of regulatory environment helped the unorganised trailer market to mushroom, it is no longer the case. Regulatory environment is kicking in. The capping of the length of motor carriers at 18.75 m is just the start, said an industry expert. He added, the truck code will set things right; will ensure safety and environmental compliance in the case of trucks. Avvered Ranjit Singh, Punjab Transport Company, “The approval of trailer type code AIS 113 will not only improve the safety norms, it will also drive professionalism and turn trailer makers into organised players.” Batra informed, “The trailer type code AIS11 will go beyond the enhancement of existing safety norms.” Overloading and overspeeding ar the two issues regarding truck-trailers that need to be addressed. The need is to change the operator mind set; to strictly implement the apex court’s order to ban overloading. Stricter policing is helping, toll road companies are getting more aggressive in combating overloading since such vehicles damage their roads. Facilitating the carriage of more load, truck-trailer operators are sadly not immune to the problems faced by others, including delays at state borders and limited availability of infrastructure. Drawing attention to the fact that a truck-trailer has difficulty operating over narrow roads, the industry expert claimed, that the pressure to break even for a truck-trailer operator is high. His focus is therefore bound to be on higher utilisation. Expressed Kulwant Singh of Hundal Trailer Service, “The cost of trailer transport is competitive, and has the potential to cushion the industry from slowing down.”

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Safety and road infrastructure

Safety concerning truck-trailers is perhaps the most debated subject. Safety and better returns in the case of trucks are tied to infrastructure. Stated Tayal, that the lack of adherence to adequate safety compliance has attributed to the country’s substandard road and traffic conditions. Testimony to it is the substantially higher rate of casualties, at both the loading facilities as well as on the roads.” Mandatory ABS on heavy trucks has been an effort to elevate road safety. Claimed an industry expert, that there is a need to maintain the trailer, ensure that its braking system, lights and other mechanisms (like the container lashing mechanism) are in good working condition.

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Need to standardise; to grow

Stress on standardisation is being laid to ensure that the trailer market grows. Said Batra, “Standardisation of input will certainly facilitate a better return to the transporter in the form of mileage, longer life of trailer and improved operating economics. The cost of transport, which is highly competitive when it comes to trailers, would cushion the trailer industry from experiencing any slowdown impact. Typically in India, the trailer market is concentrated in cities and regions where the need for transporting commodities (finished goods, FMCG, etc.) or natural resources (iron ore, coal, etc.) is more. It is in line with easy access to national highways.” Tata DLT is banking on growth by introducing products like tip-trailers and canopy trailers. Quick to understand the direction in which the wind is blowing, trailer manufacturers are tapping into the cement trailer market. According to Anuj Kathuria, President – Global Trucks, Ashok Leyland, the tractor-trailer segment is primarily driven by the cement movement. He mentioned, that container movement is another potential growth segment that could contribute to the segment’s overall growth. “With infrastructure looking up, it is bound to sustain growth,” opined Kathuria.

Outlook

Trailer manufacturers are optimistic about growth. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill, according to Tayal, is the silver-lining. It would have a positive impact on the commercial vehicle sector, the trailer segment especially, thinks Tayal. Expected to bring down logistics costs and enhance efficiency, the (truck) trailer market, globally, is expected to grow at a CAGR of three to four per cent over the next five years. Much growth is expected to come from countries other than the USA, EU and Japan. ASEAN and East European countries are expected to emerge as the major growth driver for the global trailer market. India is expected to be at the forefront.

Volvo ups the ante

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Volvo Buses India has upgraded its inter-city bus range; the engines are now BSIV emission compliant.

Story by:

Ashish Bhatia

Volvo Buses commands 65 per cent of the premium luxury inter-city bus market in India. The market is claimed to be a meagre 3 to 4 per cent of the overall bus market in India. Claimed to have kick-started this market in 2001 with its 12 m long B7R two-axle rear-engine bus with body built locally by Azad Coach Builders, the Swedish bus major has come to entrench itself firmly into the Indian market. It has grown with the market over time, retaining its first mover advantage, reaching out to both, the State Transport Undertakings (STUs) and private operators like Neeta, Sharma, VRL, SRS Travels and many more. Taking upon the task of building its own bus bodies by investing in a bus body building facility at Hosakote, Bangalore, in 2008, Volvo Buses India also expanded its product line-up. It added a multi-axle 13.8 m luxury inter-city bus in 2008, a 14.5 inter-city luxury coach in 2012, and a low floor city bus in 2011. Having initiated the trials of its value brand, UD Buses, in 2014, Volvo Buses India has stuck to building premium rear-engine buses. According to VRV Sriprasad, Managing Director, Volvo Buses – South Asia, “The company has always taken the lead in introducing new technologies and concepts, and is working to help ‘create value’.” Despite the advent of competition from global majors like Mercedes-Benz and Scania, Volvo has held on to its own. It has sold over 6000 buses, including 4,500 coaches that are claimed to connect 100-plus locations across India. Over 1,500 Volvo city buses are said to operate in 34 cities in the country. Launching a hybrid city bus in Navi Mumbai last year, Volvo has taken yet another step to further consolidate its place in the burgeoning Indian bus market.

The company has replaced the B7R 12 m platform with B8R. This is the same platform that was the basis for Volvo exporting its first bus to Europe last year with a Euro 6 powertrain. This bus was recently launched in Spain according to Hakan Agnevall, President, Volvo Bus Corporation. The B9R platform has been upgraded to B11R. This platform includes two luxury coaches; one is 13.8 m long and the other is 14.5 m long. Both the buses now sport a 410 hp 11-litre six-cylinder in-line common-rail turbodiesel engine that is BSIV compliant.

The B8R gets a locally manufactured 330 hp, 8-litre common-rail six-cylinder turbodiesel engine that is BSIV compliant. Particular mention should be accorded to the 8-litre engine made at VE Commercial Vehicles engine plant at Pithampur, Indore. It is highly localised and forms the basis for many Volvo group products the world over. With this engine, Volvo Buses India, will be able to address the demand of its customers for localised products. The engine, as the heart of the bus, according to Akash Passey, Senior Vice President – Business Region International, Volvo Bus Corporation, will help to improve the operating performance of the customer, and usher a better experience for those who ride this bus.

Marking the completion of 15 years of Volvo Buses in India, the new upgraded buses are set to keep Volvo ahead of the curve. Building on the familiarity of the brand in India, the B8R and the B11R have also seen some cosmetic changes, both externally and internally. A noticeable change outside is the redesigned grille and head lamp assembly. The head lamp assembly flaunts powerful xenon beams, and is claimed to outperform the halogen lamps the buses came with until now. Flaunting new bumpers at the front and rear, a new feature on these buses is the Rear Vehicle Monitoring (RVM) system. It includes a rear camera that offers a rear-view when reversing in the 2-DIN screen fitted in the driver console. If the bus flaunts aluminium hatches on the storage lid and the engine hatch at the rear, the high levels of fit and finish standards. are clearly evident.

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There is a perceptible change evident inside too. Not limited to fit and finish, it is also about the 2×2 seating arrangement as well as the 2×1 seating arrangement. The 14.5 m 2×1 B11R bus came fitted with Prakash Fainsa seats, which marks a departure from Harita Seating, which until now was regarded as the standard for seating systems in premium luxury buses. The 2×1 seating arrangement made for a spacious feel. Also fitted on this bus was a pantry and a chemical toilet. These are meant to serve the needs of travellers during long distance rides. Featuring five fire extinguishers, the bus, complying with the AIS 052 bus code, is fitted with an emergency door at the rear right. A digital nose, fitted in the ceiling, detects any drop in oxygen level, and alerts the driver. The driver drowsiness assist feature is optional, and can detect a change in driver attention. Also fitted are three high-definition CCTV cameras and passenger alert systems.

The driver cockpit includes a sprawling dash with the instrument console at the centre. Two big dials are that of a speedo and a tacho. Two smaller dials on either side of a LCD screen are that of turbo pressure, temperature, fuel level, and air pressure respectively. To the right of the instrument console is the parking brake lever, and a set of switches including the one that helps to adjust the rear-view mirrors. To the left of the instrument console is a bank of switches that include passenger cabin lighting, and various other ancillary lighting functions including the one for the chemical toilet. There’s an AC console, head light and fog lamp switch and a (head lamp) leveller. There’s a 7-inch LCD screen too. The media head unit is built into what could be termed as the center console. The driver seat is adjustable, and makes for a comfortable driving position. The turn of key has the needles rising. They settle down as the engine wakes up to life. Since it is at the rear, not much noise travels to the front. It is the instruments that are the sole indication of the state the engine is in. The LCD screen at the center indicates the gear the I-shift transmission is in; if it is in neutral. The screen incorporates a fully-integrated master multiplex architecture for on-board diagnosis. The optional Alco-lock breath analyser mounted on the pillar to the right signals the bus to not start if the driver fails the breath test! The driver drowsiness console on the dash is also optional, and has a camera fitted in it. It records the driver’s eye movements, and sounds a chime if it detects driver’s eyelids are batting slowly.

Another interesting feature is the ‘I-coach’. It guides the driver through voice commands on the use of critical parameters like energy and torque. It coaches him to extract power optimally. The geo-fencing function as part of the I-coach records the mistakes committed by the driver to help him improve his skills. With telematics on offer, this bus, as I ease it out of parking, is one of the most modern premium segment buses available in India. The 12-speed Automated Manual Transmission (AMT) is slotted in ‘D’. It mimics an auto transmission, and there’s no clutch for me to worry about. Its the expanse of the bus that I need to worry about. This one’s really long at 14.5 m. The rear-view mirrors are of much help. The low seating position ensures that I look up to the mirrors while being seated comfortably with an almost uninterrupted view of what is there in the front. Belting out 410 bhp, the new upgraded 11-litre BSIV compliant common-rail turbodiesel six-cylinder engine of this bus makes it perhaps the most powerful in its class. This is evident as I step on the accelerator once out on an open stretch of tarmac. The bus surges ahead, the whopping 1980 Nm peak torque unleashed between 950-1400rpm ensuring swift progress. The B11R with its upgraded engine feels quick and powerful no doubt, it also feels very refined. Quite unlike the front-engine buses that are found in abundance in India.

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Despite its 19,500 kg weight, the B11R responds with good alacrity as I pilot it over Volvo’s track at Hosakote, Bangalore. With the lever in ‘D’, the gears change as the gradient of the track changes, and with it, the speed and load. This is indicated by the ratio the transmission has currently selected in the LCD screen. As I see it, the bus is currently in fourth gear. As speeds rise, the transmission steadily shifts up. Speeds rise; the speedo needle has come to hover around the 50 kmph as the bus travels over a straight stretch. Turns is where the challenge to pilot this bus lies. It needs to be gently guided into and out of turns considering its length and the rear overhang. The longest bus one can lay their hands on, the B11R can seat 37 people with 2×1 seating arrangement. The 2×2 seating arrangement enables the bus to accommodate 57 passengers. The Electronically Controlled Suspension (ECS) – pnuematic in nature – makes for a comfortable ride. The steering feels precise though not as tight as that of a passenger car. This is a bus, and the steering wheel is quite large in diameter. Larger than my Fabia’s steering wheel. Confident, I decide to pilot the bus through a narrow curvy stretch of the track. At one point it calls for a stop and go. The ‘hill-start’ helps. The bus moves ahead. Interestingly, it does not feel like it, but the rear steerable tag axle is helping the bus to negotiate tight corners by modifying (reducing) the turning radius. The tag axle wheels turn in a certain proportion to the front wheels. They steer in the opposite direction!

The Electronic Braking System (EBS) presents the Volvo bus with an impressive braking ability. The brakes are pneumatically operated, and are ABS equipped. A mere touch of the pedal is enough to retard the bus. Brakes are discs all round, and their temperature is monitored to ensure their optimal efficiency and ability. The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) reduces the risk of a roll over. Also included, an advanced anti-skid system, applies the brakes if it detects any abnormal movement. Each wheel brakes individually to stabilise the coach while reducing power to the drive wheels. For control while driving down a slope, the bus is equipped with a speed retarder. It works in tandem with the brakes to ensure safe deceleration. Reflective of how far, and how fast technology has progressed to make the lives of bus commuters comfortable, the Volvo 14.5 m bus sets the standard. It is estimated to cost in the region of Rs. 1.15 crore. For an operator who would spend such an amount on a bus, the proposition has got to be solid. This is exactly what the Volvo B11R is built to support. It is a world-class machine. It is solidly built, and would like to spend most of its life on the road, taking long strides, time and again.

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VRV Sriprasad, Managing Director, Volvo Buses – South Asia.

Q. As the first to launch a hybrid bus in the country, are you content with the market acceptance?

A. Unlike plug-in hybrid buses, diesel hybrids do not bank upon the supporting infrastructure. Nothing specific is therefore required from the government. As a government policy, there is the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric (FAME) vehicle scheme. It is a very big facilitator and enabler for hybrid and electric vehicles. Volvo was the first to qualify and deliver buses under the FAME scheme. At Volvo Buses India we have been in constant dialogue with the government to let the scheme to continue. If it does, it will provide good motivation for corporations to utilise the subsidy and bridge the capital cost gap in a given framework.

Q. Is the subsidy under the FAME scheme enough?

A. For the start, we cannot complain. Consider the example of our hybrid bus. It qualifies as a strong hybrid. The customer is thus entitled to a subsidy of Rs.61 lakh for a bus that costs Rs.2.3 crore. That is a fairly substantial sum. With performance an important aspect of hybrid vehicles, the concept is gaining acceptance. Once it attains a certain threshold, we can push the Ministry of Heavy Industries to look at higher subsidy. It would have to come from all the stakeholders involved.

Q. How has been the feedback for the hybrid buses supplied to Navi Mumbai Muncipal Transport (NMMT)?

A. We are engaged with NMMT. It has acknowledged fuel savings upwards of 33 per cent when compared to conventional diesel buses that they operate. We feel that NMMT could speak to their passengers to gauge their experience of traveling in a hybrid bus in comparison to a conventional diesel bus. If the STU is looking to position itself as forward looking, we believe they will go for more hybrid buses.

Q. What part is Volvo Buses playing in Group synergies?

A. There is definitive synergy at play within the Group at the engineering level. I would not want to comment on synergy at the business level in India at this stage.

Q. Volvo Group partner Nova bus has introduced plug-in hybrid and full electric buses. Is a similar proposition viable in India?

A. In India, it will be just the Volvo brand for now. We also have Sunway as another joint venture partner in China which is a provider of hybrids. However it is too nascent to look at such partnerships for India’s hybrid bus segment.

Q. What do you think is the biggest differentiator for Volvo Buses?

A. We have been testing electromobility solutions for long. A hybrid or electric vehicle we launch is a culmination of years of testing and validation. This is the biggest differentiator. When money is spent to buy a bus, the buyer is assured of getting a tested product; he is assured of its performance. At Volvo, we spend a considerable amount of time to bring out a product. Time is spent on intense testing and validation of the product. No decision is taken in an adhoc manner. Nobody can claim to have perfected the hybrid technology. Battery technology continues to evolve. In the case of hybrid bus batteries, the challenge faced is to make them suitable for adverse climates, hot and humid regions especially. It is a big challenge in India. We have restricted hybrid buses to cities where we are sure the temperature and humidity levels do not exceed a particular level. We are pragmatic; we are not holding back. In India, it may seem like the customers and competition are rushing ahead. Such an approach does not align with our philosophy.

Q. Are you looking at engaging global partners like ABB Tosa to build electric bus charging infrastructure in India?

A. Globally we work together and the electric buses for Sweden are being planned in partnership with them. In India, we are yet to decide on introducing electric buses. These buses would be launched in Sweden by the year 2018. Only post this will we be able to look at a time-line for India.

Q. Since you are pitching hybrid buses to various STUs, are you looking at any volumes?

A. I would not be able to put a number to it. The annual capacity of the Hosakote plant is 1500 units. It is not fully utilised. If I get a 300 vehicle (hybrid bus) order, I shall be able to deliver it in a period of six months given the surplus capacity I have at my disposal.

Q. What is the local content of Volvo Buses in India?

A. In the case of the body, we have localised 100 per cent. On the chassis front, much of the content is coming from Sweden. In the 12 m bus, the engine, we have started sourcing from Pithampur. We are on a program to increase localisation going forward.

Q. Lithium-ion battery prices are said to spiral downwards. Will it make hybrid buses attractive?

A. There could be a point of inflection or deflection where it could lead to the rates suddenly falling. It is then that we would look at volume benefits.

Q. The National Electric Mobility Mission (NEMMP) plan envisages seven million hybrid buses by 2020. Is it achievable?

A. We see some traction on cars and plug-ins. While the count is achievable cumulatively, it would be premature to estimate such a count exclusive to buses.

Q. How will electromobility align with other mobility medias like intra-city and inter-city modes of transport in the future?

A. In the core areas of a city, and in ‘no pollution’ areas, pure electric is the way forward. Away from the core areas, plug-in hybrids could fit the bill. In the case of diesel hybrids, which do not require a dedicated infrastructure, suburbs could be the best region to ply. In the case of inter-city travel, we do not see the possibility of replacing diesel powered buses anytime soon.

Circuit from Ashok Leyland

Ashok Leyland has introduced an electric bus, developed indigneously for the Indian mass market.

Story by:

Anirudh Raheja

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In a country where mass transit is by means of 1,50,000 diesel-run buses, often accused of attributing carbon dioxide and smog, Ashok Leyland has unveiled a new electric bus called the Circuit. Adding to the efforts of reducing global warming, the Circuit points at a rising transition towards alternate mediums of propulsion in India. Especially electric medias, and in particular buses, which form the backbone of India’s public transport despite the arrival of newer mediums like metro and monorail. Expected to contribute to the paradigm shift in public transportation in India, Ashok Leyland has indigneously developed the Circuit, a full electric bus, ahead of schedule. Unveiled at an event in Chennai, the Circuit bus series is a zero emission vehicle that was completely engineered in India. It was designed keeping in mind the Indian road conditions, and the prevailing load conditions. Varied topography along with usage was also considered. The Circuit thus has been built on a simple, mass-market platform, which aims to reduce operational and maintenance costs.

At the Circuit’s unveiling ceremony, Ambuj Sharma, Additional Chief Secretary, Industries and Commerce, Government of Tamil Nadu, expressed that the government aim is to ensure 20 per cent of the vehicles sold by 2020 should be electric or hybrid in nature. “Where the former will be pure electric, the latter can be mild or strong hybrid. Considering the upfront acquisition cost and running cost, there is a lot that matters. However, moving away from fossil fuels is the need of the hour,” he mentioned. The Circuit, according to

T Venkatraman, Sr. Vice President – Global Bus, Ashok Leyland, is part of the plan to invest Rs. 500 crore towards expanding the bus portfolio. The investment will be phased, and close to Rs. 22 crore have been pumped into the development of the Circuit, he added. Venkatraman revealed that all transport corporations are talking about procurement, and for each of them acquisition cost is important. “We already have three or four STUs which are actively under tendering. Once people see our ability to participate, they will come to us.”

Parts that make the Circuit

If the name ‘Circuit’ sounds unusual for an electric bus, it is also reflective of the change that it taking place in the Indian auto industry. Up to 40 per cent of the parts that make the Circuit are sourced locally. This excludes the Lithium-ion batteries. Their management is a proprietory tech however, and the IPR lies with Ashok Leyland aver sources. Equipped with an alert system that can signal if the bus is low on power, the Circuit has a 120 km travel range on a single charge under standard test conditions. While sources claim that the batteries are sourced from Ashok Leyland partners in the United States, they can be fully recharged in three hours according to Venkatraman. Averred Venkatraman that it is not about usage but about battery management that is important. This, he added, will need to be monitored for charging and discharging of the batteries as part of the vehicle’s usage cycle. “The material can come from anywhere, the whole intelligence of managing the battery is an electronic control knowledge,” opined Venkatraman. The batteries of Circuit, claim sources, are capable of lasting up to seven years depending upon their usage.

Platform strategy

The Circuit bus is part of a platform strategy that will spring new variants and more buses claim industry sources. It would all depend on the requirement, they add. According to Venkatraman, it is possible to make an electric bus with 65-70 seats. However the amount of batteries it will require will simply make it prohibitive, he added. The dimensions, body specifications, and grade-ability of Circuit comply with Urban Bus Specifications II set by the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India. Developed with technological inputs from Ashok Leyland’s UK subsidiary Optare, which is looked upon as a pioneer of electric buses, the Circuit can seat 31 people excluding the driver. The seating layout is a classic 2×2. Attention has been given to ergonomics. The driver cockpit has been designed to ensure a comfortable drive. From the passenger point of view, a big change is going to be the near noiseless travel. The Circuit emits 78dBA of noise, which is considerably less than the 85dBA noise a conventional diesel bus in the same class emits. The Circuit features on-board wi-fi and USB mobile charger for the convenience of the passengers.

The system

At the heart of the Circuit is a motor. It is coupled to a propeller shaft and the differential. Capable of attaining a top speed of 75 kmph, the Circuit is currently available without air-conditioning. Designed and engineered with a payback period of up to five years, an air-conditioned version will be offered upon demand. Built at Ashok Leyland’s plant at Alwar, Rajasthan, and at Viralimalai, Tamil Nadu, the Circuit, according to Venkatraman, can be rolled out in three weeks from either facility. With focus on cost competitiveness, the Circuit, according to Venkatraman, will be made specific to order. It will, he added, make a good medium for transport at heritage locations and in hilly areas. Sale of 50 units in the current fiscal has been envisaged. The plan is to take this number to 200 units next year. With government offering the subsidy under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid) and Electric vehicles (FAME) scheme on a first-come-first serve basis, the onus will be on the STU to engineer a proposal, and seek the subsidy to procure an electric bus. Industry sources claim that the Circuit will be priced in the region of Rs. 1.5 crore.

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Slow, but picking up

The FAME scheme to promote electric and hybrid vehicles received much applause. Its allocation has been subject to scrutiny and criticism. The allocation is said to be not enough. If the FAME has been encouraging for manufacturers to jump on the electric (and hybrid) bandwagon, the need to develop technologies indigenously is calling for more support. For every diesel bus replaced by an electrically propelled one, a whopping 25-tonnes of CO2 emissions can be reduced every year. As per the study by Indian Institute of Science (IISC) that undertook the evaluation of electric vehicles for urban transport, electric buses generate 82 per cent more profit over diesel buses. Revenues too can see a 27 per cent hike. The Circuit electric bus provides Ashok Leyland an opportunity to tap into the FAME scheme, which was launched in April 2014 by the central government, and is part of the ambitious National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP). Under NEMMP, the government aspires to put seven million electric and hybrid vehicles on the roads of the country by 2020. Claim industry sources, that in the case of buses, it is the length of the bus and its charging speed that is among the prime factors that decide the level of subsidy. Mentioned Venkatraman, “We need to work with our partners, and engage with battery manufacturers to figure out what more we can do to make the electric bus more efficient.”

T. Venkatraman, Senior Vice President – Buses, Ashok Leyland Ltd.

Q. How do you look at the FAME scheme?

A. Since pollution is surging in cities, the government is compelled to offer an option, and say that they will increase the subsidy. If it will be sensibly priced, more and more people will respond to it. More subsidy will translate into easier availability of battery technology, which would make electric vehicles a more engaging option. Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh are offering a VAT subsidy. It is about making it happen. It is about work in progress. We need to see what can be done to make this happen. I can explain FAME to them, but the STU has to put together a proposal and seek the subsidy from the government. This is about first-come-first-serve subsidy.

Q. How do you see the ecosystem developing for electric vehicles in India?

A. We need to work with our partners to make it sensible. We have to engage more with the battery manufacturers and figure out what else can be done to make it more efficient. We have the ability and the know how to put it together. This vehicle is a 30-seater vehicle, which we can take up to 65-70 seats. But the amount of batteries it will call for will make it prohibitive. Our team is already working on that, and commercialisation is the key.

Q. How much time will it take to roll out one bus?

A. The bus can be rolled out in three weeks. It does not have too many aggregates put together, and it is more about assembly kind of situation. It is all about balancing the technology right. The bus can be rolled out in three weeks, provided the aggregates have been agreed upon, and the prototype is approved. If it is a brand new product to be built ground up, then it would take three months. There are many players who are importing this vehicle (an electric bus) from various parts of the world. There is a Chinese company that announced that it is setting up a plant in India. To us, the USP will be a mid-size vehicle, which has been completely developed in India. This would not be made to stock but made to order. We will serve what the customer wants. It would depend upon the application and the required battery.

Q. What about battery life in such applications?

A. Battery life, depending upon usage, is seven years.

Q. Which facility will the Circuit be made at?

A. The bus can be rolled out from either of our seven plants. For us, it is logistics that will play an important role. It will influence vehicle cost. Depending upon the demand, we would like to build this bus at a location that is closer to the customer. This would help to keep the vehicle’s logistics costs low. Our plants are fully equipped to facilitate technology transfer from one location to the other. The bus, we are aiming at city application, feeder routes offering last mile connectivity, and at tarmac. Tourist will be targetted as we move forward.

Q. Where are you sourcing the batteries from?

A. A battery is very important for an electric vehicle like the Circuit. It is therefore not about usage, but about how the battery is managed. The (battery) material can come from anywhere, the intelligence of managing the battery is about electronic control knowledge. For now, a Lithium-ion battery technology is good enough. A breakthrough in battery technology is expected as efforts to reduce the battery weight are on. Efforts are on to make it safer, smaller and more powerful. The battery is currently being sourced from the USA. We are working with three to four companies simultaneously. These include Malcom and Valence. It (battery) is something that we need to be very careful about. Many have tried and failed. Excessive heat is often the reason. We would like to minimise the risk first. We would like to work with the company which validates it under expert supervision.

Q. What is the effect of AC in terms of performance?

A. The AC will roughly take about 35-40 per cent off the distance travelled. This will necessitate an increase in battery power. The battery will need to be managed in a modular way as the arrays are increased. This can be managed. A power bank is a decent business model, but calls for a need to balance the batteries. When you have multiple batteries you can’t have different charging in different batteries. The mismatch of charge will create a surge.

Q. What investment would such activities attract in the future?

A. For the expansion of our bus plant, we have put in more than Rs. 500 crore, which stands relevant for multi-application and not just this product. Out of this, roughly 10 per cent of the investment will be routed to such an application. Some transport corporations are talking about procurement of an electric bus. For each of them it is the acquisition cost that matters. We have already got three or four STUs which are actively under tendering. Once our ability to participate is evident, they (STUs) will come to us. We are trying to ensure that the subsidy is sensible.

Q. What are the critical issues when it comes to electric vehicles?

A. Monitoring and discipline are essential when it comes to the operation of electric vehicles; their charging cycle and their usage. This includes carrying out of the necessary checks. An interesting part is, an electric bus will not throw the kind of surprises a diesel bus could. Considering the fact that alternate fuel is the cause of concern as well as the most relevant topic the world over, each programme calls for a robust structure. There is a need for infrastructure to be in place before an experiement with technology is carried out. An example is the need of CNG pumps to ensure a constant and consistent supply of gas before the technology is made commercially available. We believe that an experiment is easy since one can work with the currently available power options and then build the infrastructure. Factors like how the cost of battery can be brought down matter. Reduction in cost has an effect on the payback period, and is thus important. If payback period goes down, a lot of electric vehicles will hit the road.

Earthly ambitions

Nagpur-based Mann Engineering Company has acquired 10 Eicher Pro 831T tippers.

Story by:

Bhushan Mhapralkar

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A black Land Rover Freelander cuts through the traffic on the Nagpur-Chandrapur highway. In it is S.Jagjeet Singh Mann, partner of Nagpur-based Mann Engineering Company that specialises in mining exercises in the state of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. Mann Engineering Company is a family owned enterprise with an estimated net worth of between Rs.100 and Rs.150 crore. Established in 2013, the company traces its roots to Mann Transport Company that was founded by Jagjeet Singh’s father, Bhan Singh Mann, at Pench and Kanha range of Western Coalfields Limited (WCL), one of the eight subsidiaries of Coal India Limited (CIL). Mann Transport Company specialised in the transport of coal; Mann Engineering Company has come to specialise in a variety of mining exercises. It has been growing from strength to strength with the judicious use of resources and technology in an increasingly competitive environment.

Just before Chandrapur, the Freelander turns off the highway and heads into the remote countryside. Green fields of cotton mark either side of the road as habitation fades into the background. The road surface deteriorates. The high ground clearance of Freelander helps as at one point the road almost disappears. What remains is a rough earthen patch. Even on such a bad patch of country road there is traffic; local two wheeler riders are interspersed by heavy lorries and semitrailers. It is getting harsh and desolete as every passing truck kicks up a dust storm. The phone signal dwindles and almost dies. After what seems like a long journey, heaps of overburden appear on the horizon. It takes some time for the Freelander to reach closer, its wheels bouncing off the rough surface below. It comes to a stop, and Mann alights. He walks a few steps to his spartan site office. His company has been awarded the task of removing all type of material and all kinds of strata by hiring equipment such has HEMM, tippers, drills, dozers, graders and water sprinklers to drill, excavate, load, transport, dump, spread, doze, grade and sprinkle with water at specified places as per the instruction of the engineer-in-charge at the amalgamated Pauni 2 and 3 open cast coal mines in the Ballarpur area. The total quantity to be excavated, as per the work order, is 78,32,000 cu. m. Mann’s company has 46 months to execute the work awarded to it. Work began in April 2016.

Equipment’s the backbone

Lined up outside Mann’s spartan site office are a few trucks. Two of these are Volvo FM tippers. One is a Pro 8031T 31-tonne GVW tipper. They are a part of the 174 machine fleet Mann Engineering Company owns. Making up the company’s backbone are Tata Hitachi excavators, Volvo FM and FMX heavy-duty tippers, BEML and Komatsu dozers, Caterpillar moto-graders and pay loaders, Tata and Volvo water sprinklers, Tata and BharatBenz diesel dispensing vans, Atlas drilling machine, Tata utility and service vans, and 10 Eicher Pro 8031T tippers. The 10 Eicher Pro 8031T tippers are one of the youngest machines in the fleet leave for one Eicher light duty truck and an Isuzu D-Max pickup that were recently porcured. According to Mann, these 10 trucks were acquired because of his company’s rapport with Volvo Trucks. “We chose Eicher Pro 8031T because of our experience with Volvo trucks, which has been good. Since the Eicher Pro 8031T is a Volvo products we formed an impression that it will be good too. Also, if we have an issue, we could walk up to the people at Volvo and tell them to address it,” he adds.

Siddharth Kirtane, Head – Sales and Marketing, VE Commercial Vehicles Ltd., reveals, “Mann Engineering Company bought five 8×4 Eicher Pro 8031T tippers with a 16 cu. m. rock body in October 2015. In May this year, they bought another five 8031T tippers with a 16 cu. m. rock body upon finding the performance of the truck good.” Hinting at leveraging his experience from selling Volvo tippers in India’s mining belts Siddharth explains that the Eicher Pro 8031T is built at Volvo Trucks’ facility at Hosakote, Bangalore. “From the time the truck was made available in October 2015, we have sold 288 units,” he adds.

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Mann’s preference for Eicher 8031T tipper stems from his long experience in the field. He has been the pillar of his company, and his family. He is well aware of how the equipment his company operates has an effect on the costs and the company’s ability to sustain as well as grow. Mentions Jagjeet Singh Mann, that they have used the Mercedes-Benz Actros tippers, MAN tippers, and Tata Prima tippers. “We have also had Scania, Kamaz and other tippers for trial. We also trialed a tipper from a Russian company with operations in Bengal,” he adds. He draws attention to how drivers are spoiled for choice. “If the AC develops a fault due to some reason, the driver simply refuses to operate the truck,” he adds. Mann explains, “He (the driver) will simply drive to the site office, park his truck and drive away in another (standby) truck.” Avers Siddharth, that there’s a lot at stake. Companies are hard pressed to finish their work before the prescribed period as this helps them to save costs. Standby equipment is thus a part of their operating strategy, he adds. Unlike before, maximum uptime forms a crucial link when it comes to sustain-ability and earnings.

Explains Mann, that fuel costs amount to 50 per cent of their project costs. The fact is, project costs haven’t increased overtime, it is the fuel costs thathave increased substantially. They have now began to amount to 55 to 60 per cent of the project cost, he adds. Avers Mann that the rise in operating costs and overheads continue to shrink the earning potential. “Our earnings amount to a mearge 8 per cent of the total project costs. A 10 per cent saving in fuel cost per machine also amounts to a significant saving for us. This especially matters when the diesel consumption at a project site amounts to between 9 and 10 lakh litres per month,” explains Mann. In peak season, work progresses at a feverish pace. A duty cycle lasts for 20 hours or more.

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Eicher advantage

Mann has come to see a distinct advantage in the Eicher Pro 8031T. “They consume less fuel than the Volvos,” he quips. So, apart from the rapport with the Volvo folks, it was the frugal nature of the Eicher tipper that got Mann to procure five more units in May 2016. States Mann, “The Eicher (Pro 8031T) costs roughly half of what it costs to buy a Volvo FMX 8×4 tipper at Rs.95 lakh approximately.” he is happy that for almost half the cost, the Eicher Pro 8031T is helping him to execute 75 per cent of the work that a Volvo tipper does. The oldest Volvo tipper in the fleet is a FM 300. The first Volvo Mann came in contact with was a FM7. It was bought by Avtar and Co., a company that was established by his father in 1988, and had Mann’s brothers as partners apart from his father. The newest Volvos in the Mann Engineering Company fleet are nine FM480s. Many Pro 8031T drivers are Volvo drivers. Their expectations from the machine are high. Avers Siddharth, “Expectations from drivers and owners alike made us embark on a task to build qualitative aspects around the Eicher heavy-duty truck portfolio.” He adds, “It is thus about professional processes and abilities, higher payload and efficiency, superior uptime, and better profitability.” Solidly built the Pro 8031T tipper is. With a payload capacity of 25-tonnes approximately, it is a 280 hp class machine. Arguably the most powerful in its class, the 8-litre six-cylinder Volvo engine that powers the Pro 8031T is built locally at the Volvo Eicher PowerTrain (VEPT) plant at Pithampur, Indore. This engine also powers many Volvo Group products the world over.

Cost effective and frugal

Structured over a wheelbase of 4600 mm, the C-section long member of the truck, aligning with Volvo’s specs, is 300 mm tall. It runs through out the length of the chassis. The driver’s seat of the Pro 8031T is 6-way adjustable, and the cab is 4-point suspended. AC is standard. According to Siddharth, it costs approximately Rs.55 lakhs to buy the Eicher Pro 8031T. A mid-premium product according to Kirtane, the Pro 8031T is used by Mann for work up to a depth of 30 m. “Against every excavator that is operated, there are five tippers attached. We bought ten Eicher tippers with a calculation that they as a batch of five will work in tandem with two excavators,” he adds. Citing his experience since 1995, Jagjeet Singh Mann says that up to a certain depth (of up to 30 m) they are using the Eicher tippers, and below 30 m they are using Volvo tippers. Like the Volvo tippers, the Eicher Pro 8031T is also subjected to a duty cycle of 21 hours. Equipped with a manual nine-speed gearbox, the Eicher Pro 8031T, according to Mann, has led to a 10 per cent fuel saving per truck. Over the 10 trucks the company is operating, this amounts to a significant chunk of saving.

On-site

Significant mechanisation is evident as excavators and trucks crowd a desolate parcel of land. Excavators are chipping away at chunks of mother earth. Work is progressing at a feverish pace. Like bees swarming up to a piece of Jaggery, Eicher Pro 8031Ts line up one after the other for the excavator to fill their rock bodies with overburden up to the brim. Mann signal the driver of one of the trucks to disembark. I take his place. In the crawler gear, the truck moves up an incline with ease. It feels like there’s much more than the expected 25-tonne load at the rear. Overloading in the mining context is not a well kept secret. The soft cotton soil is sticky, and the tyres, I can sense, are cutting into the soil, making sizeable trenches. Grip and traction are hard found luxuries, and the Pro 8031T keeps going, its mighty torque not letting the soil win. With heavy use, the gear shifter feels a bit vague in its travel. The gears slot nevertheless. A tough creature this truck is as it ploughs through the soft soil, and rolls over to the dumping site, which is a about a km away. The trenches dug by earlier travels has the truck tramline almost. There is no easy life for the driver or the machine here. AC is the saviour.

A few meters from the dumping site is parked a white Bolero of the Volvo service team with a site engineer in it. The nearest brick and mortar service center is 35 km away at Chandrapur, and stocks inventory. It has the capability to carry out heavy repairs. A crucial link such centres play in ensuring that the trucks are on the job 24 x7. Expresses Mann, that maintenance is carried out at 9 am in the morning, and at 8 pm in the evening.” Responds Siddharth, that it helps to have a direct contact with the customer. “That is what keeps us ahead,” he adds. An interesting perspective Kirtane provides is on how technology is helping operators like Mann to sustain in a tough business environment where businessmen with deep pockets and little experience are bagging contracts at costs that could be hardly termed as sustainable.

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Technology to sustain

The rate at which a contract like this was awarded to a company over two decades ago is the same even today, avers Mann. The price of diesel, which amounts close to 60 per cent of the total project cost, has increased significantly, he adds. States Mann, that in 1995, fuel cost accounted for 15 per cent of the total project. Companies like Mann, says Kirtane, have been able to sustain because technology has ensured that they enjoy efficient and reliable machines. Machinery uptime has steadily risen; utilisation and efficiency have steadily grown too. According to Siddhrth, if the average diesel rate is Rs.60 per litre, the mining rate is also in the region of Rs.60. Avers Mann, “Consider an equipment fuel consumption average of 1.5-litre per km, and the fuel cost amounts to between 55 and 60 per cent of the total project cost today.” Quips Siddharth, that the fuel savings in comparison to 1995 level are substantially higher today. They are to the scale of 2x, 3x, 4x, and evev more, he adds. Mann agrees. He says that technology has been playing an increasingly important role in growth. He avers that he would like to avail of higher automation. Perhaps the new Eicher telematics could help him increase his company’s profitability; address his need for more automation. Interestingly predict-ability has gone up. Mentions Kirtane, “Predict-ability has gone up, and technology has ensured that the machines record higher uptime.” Unlike earlier when much time was lost in dealing with a breakdown, companies like Mann Engineering have benefited from manufacturers like Volvo and Tata Hitachi setting up service and repair facilities at the site. There’s trained manpower – engineers and technicians, at the site that manufacturers are posting. This is ensuring the clocking of maximum uptime. Mann is well aware of this, and therefore chose to buy the 10 Eicher Pro 8031Ts over trucks from other brands. He is open to considering other brands, but is keen to hear those out that can offer better service and support than the folks at Volvo are able to.

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Considering the harsh environment in which the machines operate at a mining site, and the frenzy with which the activity takes place, companies like Mann Engineering, it is clear, are racing against time. They want to stay ahead of time. Only then will they be able to sustain, and be capable of buying more Eicher Pro 8031Ts. The Pauni project, the company is keen to finish in three years instead of the stipulated four years. This, says Mann, will improve their profitability and reduce their operating costs and overheads. The Pro 8031T is proving its mettle at the Pauni mines. It is also proving its mettle at other mines across the Indian subcontinent. Set to be a live example of how technology has increased the ability of mining excavation companies to predict, plan and work in the most efficient manner, the Eicher 8031T has a lot going for it. Signs off Mann, “We are looking at buying more Eicher 8031Ts”.

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Isuzu FR 1318, the premium coach

The Isuzu FR 1318 front-engine bus looks ‘premium’, and is refined and comfortable.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

Photos by: Mahesh Reddy

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The view ahead is uninterrupted almost. The seating is high, and the large ORVMs that protrude ahead ensure that little is lost in terms of the view of what is in the vicinity. Behind the two-spoke steering wheel is an instrument cluster with a large speedo dial, a smaller rev counter and two smaller dials for fuel and temperature. There is a small digital display strip at the bottom of the speedo dial. The cluster is part of the sprawling driver console with a bank of switches and controls on the right. These include a switch to pneumatically close or open the passenger door, and to level the head lamps. Other bits include a toggle switch to adjust the ORVMs electrically. Warning lamps include a low coolant indicator. There’s an ABS switch too. On the left are two air brake pressure dials. Below them is an entertainment system head unit. The six-speed gear shifter is well within reach. It is indicative of an ergonomically well sorted driver compartment. The parking brake lever, as per the industry practice, is placed behind the driver’s seat. The seat is adjustable for height, reach and recline; is supportive and comfortable.

Impressive in appearance

Measuring 10.9 m in length and 2.6 m in width, the Isuzu FR 1318 is a front-engine bus that targets tourism as well as staff segments. It was introduced in 2015 with an ulterior motive to provide a high quality, fully built-up bus that meets the AIS052 Bus Code regulations. Drawing the attention of visitors at Auto Expo 2016, the FR 1318 measures 3.3 m in height. The wheelbase is 6260 mm. Flaunting a ‘mono’ look when viewed from the front, the FR 1318 is reflective of the high levels of fit and finish the bus industry is comming to imbibe upon. Putting up a ‘premium’ appearance, a large windshield brings the front up to speed. The head lamps are situated in what resembles a streak on either side of a simple horizontal slat grille. The fog lamps are situated in the bumper.

Walk over, and the large windows come into view. They are flush fitted, and contribute towards a ‘premium’ image the FR 1318 conveys. The side panels also reflect high standards of fit and finish. The appearance of the bus hints at a modern construction with tight panel gaps and a smooth surface finish. Lockable lids dot the lower portion. They provide access to storage compartments. There are two compartments between the axles. The one aft of the rear axle is the biggest, and can be accessed from the side as well as the rear. On either side of the rear lid are the tail lamps placed. They are a grey coloured enclosure. The tiny windshield at the top adds to the airy feel inside.

Inside

Open the driver’s door and climb up. There are steps built into the side. The passenger door is on the left. A foldable seat near the passenger door goes unnoticed almost. It adds to the seat count nevertheless. Separating the driver and passenger compartment is a partition. It plays an important role in curbing noise from entering into the passenger compartment. For passengers, the FR 1318 makes a refined and comfortable bus. This one was fitted with 39 seats of the push back (reclining) variety. The FR 1318, claim SML Isuzu sources, is capable of seating up to 41 people. Supplied to Mumbai-based Vigneshwar Travels, the 2×2 push back seats on this bus are of Harita make. The emergency door on the right (as per the bus code) necessitates more space between the third last and second last row of seats. Besides the emergency door, there are fixed windows marked as emergency exits. The glass can be broken with the help of hammers (painted in red) placed on the pillars if and when the need arises. Another safety feature is the roof hatch.

Ample glass area adds to the ‘premium’ feel the FR 1318 provides. The quality of fit and finish is good. A well designed hat rack has a console above every seat that contains air-con vents, individual reading lights, and their switches. Common lighting is in the form of bright LED light strips. At the front centre is a foldable video screen. The speakers are situated in the hat rack.

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Premium ride

Built at the SML Isuzu’s facility at Ropar, Chandigarh, the FR 1318 is a blend of Japanese technology and Indian craftsmanship. According to SML Isuzu sources, the bus enables the buyer to press it into service from the very moment he acquires it. He does not have to send the cowl chassis to a body builder and get it built to his preference as has been the practice in this segment largely. Bus Code compliant, the FR 1318 is claimed to be based on the Isuzu NQR series. It offers a fine ride. This was revealed on the Ahmedabad highway (on the outskirts of Mumbai). The Harita seats are supportive and comfortable. The low noise levels in the passenger compartment also contribute to the level of comfort. The suspension soaks up the irregularities well. The front suspension of the FR 1318 is made up of parabolic leaf springs (and hydraulic shock absorbers). Rear suspension is pneumatic in nature, and is made up of four bellows. If the flush fitted windows also contribute to lower the level of noise in the passenger cabin, the Denso supplied AC does a good job of cooling the cabin. The controls for the engine-driven compressor and blower are situated to the right of the steering wheel; below the bank of switches.

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The drive

Get into the driver’s seat, and the noise in the driver compartment is considerably higher than that of the passenger compartment. It is not intrusive. Devoid of vibrations, the bus comes across as refined. The power steering offers fair amount of feedback. At low speeds it may call for some more effort, on the highway, at good speeds, it feels light. The 173PS, 5-litre four-cylinder intercooled (BS III emission compliant) turbo-diesel engine is sourced from Japan along with the transmission and a few other bits including the engine wiring harness and the instrument cluster according to SML Isuzu sources. It is located longitudinally at the front with the drive going to the rear through a six-speed manual transmission. The engine is electronically governed, and makes the FR 1318 a powerful bus in its segment. Its four-cylinder engine is also claimed to be frugal. The local content, according to the sources, amounts to 70 per cent approximately. The live rear axle, for example, is sourced locally.

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The hydraulically controlled single plate diaphragm clutch is light to operate. The quality of gear shift is good. The tall first cog helps for an energetic start. The second cog helps to gather momentum; is useful in slow moving traffic conditions. The third and fourth cogs are what help to gather speed. Developing a peak torque of 706.5 Nm at 1500 rpm, the FR 1318 pulls well from lower revs. The spread of torque, it is clear, is wide, and starts from lower down. Above 2000 rpm, the engine does tend to get a bit vocal. It feels best in the 1200 rpm to 1500 rpm range. It is at these revs, that the bus makes for a pleasant mix of speed and refinement. 

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Market positioning

Capable of a top speed of 110 kmph, the FR 1318 impresses. Its 12.5-tonne GVW places it at the start of the 12- to 16-tonne bus segment. It is a competitive segment, both in terms of specifications and costs, and has been largely reliant on local and regional body builders. To this segment, SML Isuzu has been quick to offer a Bus Code compliant fully-built bus. It is powerful and fuel efficient. The 280-litre fuel tank should provide a good range between refills. Leveraging the capability and experience of Isuzu, Japan, the FR 1318 is equipped with pneumatically operated brakes and ABS. The brakes exert a strong bite. Priced at Rs.38 lakh approximately, the FR 1318 could be had without air-conditioning too, according to the SML Isuzu sources. It costs considerably less than this particular version, and is fitted with sliding windows instead of the fixed, flush fitted windows this bus has. Plans are in place to support the product as well as to ensure that it is marketed well. The fact that this particular bus, procured by Mumbai-based Vigneshwar Travels, will be deployed in the service of package tour operators should present an idea of how the FR 1318 is being positioned. Presenting a ‘premium’ feel, the Isuzu FR 1318 makes a lasting impression. 

Adding a new dimension

Ashok Leyland’s new Sunshine school bus adds a new dimension to the world of school buses in India.

Story by: Bhargav TS

Photos: Ashok Leyland

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With the rise in urbanisation, school buses have turned out to be the safest and the most convenient means of transport for students. From conversion of conventional buses and vans to ferry students, to school buses that comply with what are termed as one of the strictest bus regulations in the country ever, schools buses have changed a good deal over the last few years. They all come painted in a shade of yellow. It is not surprising therefore that Ashok Leyland found it appropriate to name their new school bus as Sunshine. Sunshine somehow reminds of the sunflower, which is bright yellow in colour, and stands out. Sunflower fields make an attractive sight with the flowers giving an impression of facing the sun always, much like school students as they ride the school bus; their minds immersed in the thought of studies. It is quite a sight to see a modern school bus roll by as it picks up students, stopping in front of every gate of a locality. The variety of school buses, all painted yellow, is a sight to behold. They come in different sizes and shapes. They may all look yellow, but their appearance and build differs, much like the students who ride them. Each student is a reflection of his or her parents who can be quite demanding of a school bus their child rides in. Exceptations about school buses are clearly rising.

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On a new platform

School bus operators will agree, that school buses are not an easy business. That, it is no longer about ferrying a student to school over a few kilometers, but about how it is done. Rising demand for air-conditioned school buses is one aspect, the change desired of a school bus is another. Shining bright at Auto Expo 2016, the Sunshine was unvieled amid much fanfare. It highlighted many firsts for a school bus. An outcome of the hard work put in by Ashok Leyland team, which consisted of 80 R&D engineers. Built on a new platform, which particularly emphasises upon safety and comfort of the children, the Sunshine is expected to compete against existing school buses from Volvo Eicher Commercial Vehicles, SML Isuzu, Tata Motors, and from the home stable of Ashok Leyland. According to Dr. N Saravanan, Senior Vice President – Product Development, Ashok Leyland Ltd., “The Sunshine (school bus) focuses on safety, and on small things such as the lower height first step for easy and safe ingress and egress of pupils.” “School bus accidents are mostly caused by a blind spot. In our school bus, we have ensured that the driver has superior visibility on the co-driver side,” he adds.Ashok Leyland has put a collison warning system, and has leveraged technology to come up with small but important features like anti-bacterial seat fabric. “Understanding the customer perspective is important,” mentions Dr. Saravanan.

With a firm desire to develop a product that will be better than the ones that exist, a decision to design and develop a school bus from scratch was taken. The team in charge of the project travelled the length and breath of the country to get customer feedback. After two months of extensive research the design engineers went to the drawing board to create a design. Such were the efforts taken, that children of its employees were invited. They were called upon to speak about their requirements. These were considered. The feedback received was collected and a decision to incoprorate them was taken at the time of drafting the final design. The Sunshine school bus is thus a completely customer driven product. It was developed to ensure a leading position for Ashok Leyland in the school bus segment.

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Roll-over compliant

Roll-over compliance is not necessary as per the new school bus code AIS063. Ashok Leyland decided to factor in roll-over compliance when developing the Sunshine however. The school bus is thus arguably the first of its kind in India to boast of roll-over compliance, and offers frontal crash protection as well. For Sunshine, Ashok Leyland employed special steel (YST350), which has a high yield strength. By using high yield strength material, the engineers were able to achieve rollover compliance. It is an innovative way of achieveing roll over compliance, mentioned a Ashok Leyland source, without increasing the weight considerably. The use of high strength steel has in fact seen the weight of the bus structure go down by 200 kg. The cost of raw material has escalated by 15 per cent.

Safety and convience take precedence

On Ashok Leyland’s VVC test track on the outskirts of Chennai, the Sunshine stood, basking under the afternoon rays of the sun. A high security area with restricted entry since new product development, testing and validation is carried out here, it was afternoon by the time we could get to the bus. A sunny day it was, and the Sunshine, like a pretty sunflower, stood there with its smilling face. Inviting us to it; an effect that is certain to extend to many pupils who will ride the bus to school everyday. A school bus with a pleasant demeanour, the Sunshine lacks a grille at the front. The curvature of the gap between the front panel and the bumper is such that it signals a smile. The design works, and the Sunshine attracts. The lamps are placed at either end of the curve in an enclosure. After making a lot of front designs, the designers took them to numerous school childrens. They seemed to prefer the smiling face design. It was selected. The windshield of the Sunshine is big and wide. It drops down low to offer a good visibility of the near-front. A good view of the vicinity with nary a blind spots is necessary for a school bus. It is afterall armed with the task of ferrying pupils that are intelligent and studious. The OVRMs may look a size smaller, they have been designed to rule out any possibility of a blind spot.

Walk over, and the expanse of the Sunshine comes into view. Capable of seating 40 pupils in a 2×2 seating layout, and 50 pupils in a 3×2 seating layout, the Sunshine measures 9415 mm in length.

The sides are neatly laid out. The large windows in the driver compartment have been carefully designed to ensure that the driver has a good view of the near-side. They are designed such that the driver can keep a watchful eye on the pupils that are boarding the bus, and alighting it. Riding on 7.50×16 6PR tyres, the Sunshine is fitted with drum brakes. They are ABS asisted. Attention was given to have even load distribution. This ensures a longer life of tyres, and results in superior traction.

To ensure safety of the children, the door for the passenger compartment (service entry) was placed behind the front axle. The low first step facilitates easy entry and exit. If a child does try to alight before the bus has come to a complete halt, the distance between the door and the rear axle is such that the driver will have the time to brake hard and halt the vehicle. Another consideration for not keeping the passenger (service entry) door ahead of the front axle was to ensure safety. If the front caves in during a front-end collision, the occupants can still exit rather than be held back by a broken windshield and a door that is no longer functional.

Ashok Leyland engineers have positioned the air filter behind the front wheel arches to improve NVH. In most buses, it is found to be placed in the driver compartment. As per the new code, the emergency exit on the Sunshine is on the right and closer to the rear. Adequate space between the seats allows for easy exit through the emergency door. Interestingly, as per the different Regional Transport Office (RTO), the Sunshine is engineered to have emergency exits in different locations. In case of the Maharashtra bound Sunshine, the emergency exit is placed at the rear. Designed to take into account the differing requirements of the customers, pupils as well as the regulations, which are known to differ from region to region, and from state to state, the Sunshine is a smart school bus. The rear has tail lamps placed in black surrounds, much like the front lamps are.

The i-ALERT feature the Sunshine incorporates is a state-of-the-art tracking software. Through this software, parents can monitor their child’s movement and location on a real-time basis. The software, embedded into the bus, is desigend to provide the parents with pick-up and drop-off alerts. School authorities, in addition, can use the system to monitor the well-being of their pupils inside the bus. The health of the vehicle can be tracked too.

Room for comfort

The ample glass makes for a roomy and comfortable interior of the school bus. If the low step height entry facilitates easy ingress and egress, the Sunshine boasts of being the first school bus to offer a lower floor height. The interior makes use of bright colours. Something that the children are going to like a lot. The designers have laid emphasis on colourful decals; the seats have colourful anti-bacterial fabrics, which is claimed to be the first on a school bus. They do not let the bacteria grow on them, and affect the skin’s natural balance. Anti-bacterial coating has also been applied on frequently touched parts. These have been dermatologically tested. The seats are comfortable and well cushioned, and there’s good amount of understorage space for stacking the school bags. Equipped with a hat rack and bottle holders, the Sunshine is equipped with a fire retardant interior. Stress on ventilation is evident.

Besides ample glass area, which enables good amount of light to find its way into the compartment, the Sunshine offers separate window for each row. The windows are big, and truly unique is its semi-integral construction . It is this property that has enabled the engineers to design the lowest fixed entry a school bus can offer. The centre of gravity of the bus is also low. This is claimed to improve stability by a good margin. Suspension is made up of parabolic leaf springs. Particular attention has been given to NVH. Subjected to rigorous tests to ensure that vibrations are kept well within the limits and facilitates good comfort and a pleasant ride, the Sunshine is equipped with push-to-fit connectors that prevent air locks. An in-tank feed pump is used for automatic air-lock removal and the fuel tank comes with aluminised interiors to prevent rust and corrosion.

Behind the wheel

What first draws attention is the amount of visibility the ample glass area in the driver compartment offers from behind the wheel. The driver console looks neat and is well laid out. It is the shape of a half circle. The instrument cluster is at the centre, and surrounded by various switches. Attention to ergonomics ensures that various controls are within reach. The driving position, though not high, is commanding and the view ahead is uninterrupted. Good refinement is indicated by the fact that vibrations are well contained as the 100 hp, four-cylinder common-rail turbo-diesel engine (available in BS III and BS IV configuration) comes to life. Slot into the gear and start moving; the Sunshine feels energetic and smooth. The peak torque the engine produces is 320 Nm @ 1200 rpm. The hydraulically-assisted steering wheel, offers a good feel of the surface under the wheels. The cable actuated gear shift works well. The feel of it is better than the linkage-type shifts found on many buses. Engineered to lead a hard life of frequent starts and stops, the refined feel the Sunshine conveys does not diminish with speed. Well arranged ratios of the five-speed gearbox makes for good tractability. There is a good spread of power, and the 17.1 m turning radius aids manoeuvrability. To ensure easier manoeuvrability, the engineers have pushed the front axle ahead as much as they could. Engineered to find its way through the narrow roads of the city, the Sunshine measures 2200 mm in width and 2700 mm in height. Its wheelbase is 5200 mm.

With a GVW of 7900 kg, the Sunshine is reflective of the changing requirements of the school bus segment, and how manufacturers are proactively addressing them. An example of frugal engineering, the Sunshine school bus, it is clear, has been designed and developed by keeping the needs of the drivers, operators, school management, children and parents in mind. Highlighting the fact that school buses are no longer a mere means of going to school or returning home, the Sunshine indicates that they are becoming a hotbed of technology, safety, comfort and convenience. Adding a new dimension to the world of school buses, the Ashok Leyland Sunshine seeks the best balance in a highly competitive per seat market.

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Tata Starbus Hybrid

Tata Starbus Hybrid is set to hit the roads of Bandra-Kurla Complex. It is a bus to watch out for.

Story by: Bhushan Mhapralkar

Photos by: Mahesh Reddy

Turn the key and watch the needles dance inside their dials before settling down to indicate that the bus is ready to move. Pressing the accelerator pedal does not lead to the desired result. It takes a moment to understand that it won’t; not until the air brake pressure has built up. This is indicated by the two lower dials on the Prima inspired instrument cluster. Once they have reached the prescribed level, the bus begins to move in near silence. This is unlike any other bus experienced until now. The three square buttons to the right – marked D, N and R, make up the gear shifter. There’s no clutch. On either side of the instrument cluster are a bank of switches, crucial to the smooth functioning of the bus. The driver console is attached to the steering column. The two are a single unit, and every time the steering is adjusted for reach the console also moves with it. A little ahead, the windscreen rises above like a giant surface. It helps with an uninterrupted view ahead. The Intelligent Transport System (ITS) module is to the immediate left of the driver console.

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Loco on the road

The 12 m long Tata Starbus Hybrid picks up speed like a locomotive, devoid of any noise except for that distant whine of the motors. Expected to hit the roads of Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai, by the end of this year or early next year, the bus draws images of Europe and its modern public transport medias. Contributing to this are the high standards of fit and finish and a modern build. This one feels like it has come straight out of Europe. Not surprising as 10 Tata Starbus Hybrid city buses are running on the roads of Madrid, Spain, since 2012 according to Dr. A K Jindal, Head of Engineering Research Centre (ERC) for Commercial Vehicles, Tata Motors. Till date they have accumulated more than 1.4 million kms cumulatively he adds. The chassis for the Madrid buses was built in India, including the design and integration. The body was built at Spain by Hispano. Mentions Dr. Jindal that they are bringing everything that is found on the Madrid bus to India in the form of this bus.

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The ‘true’ low floor of this bus is spick and span. Its texture is wooden, and adds to the premium city bus image. No ordinary bus this is. The Madrid tender was won in competition with bus manufacturers from the world over, states Dr. Jindal. He adds, “All the design concepts, the driver console, and the driveline are proven.” In India, the bus has been built by ACGL, Goa. The know-how has been provided by Tata Motors. Featuring imported content from well known suppliers the Starbus Hybrid that is plying at Madrid, and will ply in Mumbai, has been designed, developed and integrated in India. Its software too has been developed in India. Explains Dr. Jindal, “We began working on a hybrid in 2007. We kept a slow pace as we did not see much traction. Also, the cost of equipment was high. We participated in the FIA motor show in 2009 with a diesel electric prototype. Discussions at Hispano about up-scaling the operations led to this participation. The Spanish Government was looking at procuring CNG hybrid buses. We responded by integrating a CNG engine.” In 2011, a CNG hybrid bus was displayed at Busworld Kortrijk, Belgium.

Speeds in the region of 60 kmph are attained in near silence. The 5-litre diesel (Euro 4 compliant) engine made by Tata Motors at its plant in Pune (located transversely at the rear and behind a partition that effectively seals the engine bay from the passenger compartment) powers a generator. The generator charges the Lithium-ion battery pack. The battery pack powers the two DC motors of 120kW each. Through a summation gearbox, the motors provide a turning force to the live (ZF) portal rear axle with an offset drive head. A series hybrid this bus is. The engine fires up only to generate electricity, and when the charge falls to a certain level. It plays no role in turning the rear axle. On the road, the rising speedo needle is the only indication of speed. The other is the blurring scenery around. The steering is offering a sincere feedback of what is passing under the front wheels.

A premium offering

Before making it to Madrid in 2012, the Starbus Hybrid sailed past rigid tests in freezing Nordic conditions, and in the high temperature areas of Malaga. Its success encouraged Tata Motors to start discussions with BMTC and DHI in India. Displayed at Auto Expo 2016, the bus attracted a crowd with its looks and build. If the stickering added to what could be termed as an attractive and thoroughly modern design, the icing on the cake was the ‘true’ low floor interior with high standards of fit and finish, and the requisite bells and whistles. Hidden behind the modern appearance of the Starbus Hybrid is hours of painstaking work. The highly charged team at Tata Motors developed a parallel hybrid bus alongside this series hybrid bus on an existing low entry (RELE) rear engine platform. Four CNG parallel hybrid concept buses were deployed at the (Delhi) Common Wealth Games in 2010 to highlight the technical capability of the Indian suppliers. It was later tried out by BEST and one other bus transport organisation. The 18 to 30 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency, subject to duty cycle, was highly appreciated. Merge government subsidy did not help much. FAME did not exist then. It changed the scenario upon its arrival but the allocation is seeming to fall short. Tata Motors was directed to MMRDA with a reason that they have funds and could invest in such buses. The Starbus Hybrid is claimed to cost a competitive Rs.2 crore.

The quest for a cost effective hybrid solution led Tata Motors to develop a front engine parallel hybrid bus in 2014 with a floor height of 900 mm. The intention behind choosing a 900 mm floor height was to make the bus viable for operation in mofussil areas. The project is almost complete and has a very high level of indigenisation. “We continue to work on the technology to make it cost effective. We are localising it to reduce import dependence. We have a clear road map to make it successful,” says Dr. Jindal. He mentions, “ACGL is making significant investment to produce such high tech buses. It has been a Greenfield venture for ACGL, and the intention to approach them was to bring everything that is found on the Madrid buses. We wanted to get the Tata Hispano technology here. It would also help the company to upgrade itself.”

Like the modern low floor buses that are plying in many cities of India, the point of entry into the Starbus Hybrid is from the front door. The point of exit is from the rear door. This is done to facilitate a ticket issuer-less operation. Fitted on this bus is a ticket vending machine. If the buses deployed at Mumbai will feature this arrangement will depend on what the operator says. The operator will have to take a call. Unlike the Auto Expo 2016 concept, the buses at Bandra-Kurla Complex will be fitted with anti-bacterial vinyl seats. If the exterior lighting is LED intensive, the one that dots the interior is also LED in nature. Insulation and refinement have been paid much attention. The wooden floor is made up of insulating layers to ensure that little noise creeps in. Selling the idea of a hybrid bus since it does not require charging infrastructure was advantageous opines Dr. Jindal. The MMRDA contract, according to Sanjay Bhatia, Head – Marketing (STU and Government), Tata Motors, was bagged against five global operators on the ground of support Tata Motors will provide to the operator. Successful operation of the hybrid buses at Madrid was a deal clincher.

Comfortable to travel in, the high quality stop switches (that will last the life time of the bus) built into the grab rails ring a bell on the driver console. They could be operated by the commuter when he or she has to alight. Between each seat is a port for charging the phone. Adding to the comfort levels is the airy feel generated by the ample glass area. The flush fitted glass windows also make for a pillar-less look. For differently abled commuters, the bus has a ramp built into it. After use it retracts into the floor. To facilitate easy entry and exit, the bus comes with a leaning feature. Security is taken care of by two CCTV cameras. A convex mirror offers the driver a view of the compartment behind him.

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Overcoming challenges

To maintain the build quality and standards found on the Madrid buses, Tata Motors had to identify suppliers for body panels, for sealing products and for many other areas. Suppliers were facilitated to bring in technological know-how. According to Dr. Jindal, same methodology has been used in this bus that was used by Hispano in Spain. Hispano technicians visited India to train those at ACGL. Apart from changing the psyche of the people, mentions Dr. Jindal, Tata Motors has supported the project with technology and tooling. No corners were cut. The advanced engineering team at Tata Motors was instrumental in developing components. Local suppliers were developed. The auxiliary drives of the bus, for example, are developed locally, and integrated and validated. Electrical integration done by Tata Motors has led to substantial cost saving. Frugal engineering has been judiciously indulged into.

A young team of 50-60 people at ACGL work closely with the Tata Motors team to build the Starbus Hybrid according to Dr. Jindal. “We are proud of the electronics development done in-house, and frugally. It made it easier for us to respond to the demand of the Madrid operator to package new features,” he mentions. The Madrid operator wanted the bus engine to be non-operational when approaching a stop. The ITS was tweaked to send a signal to the engine to stop when the bus approached the stop as the engine operation in the bus is linked to the level of battery charge. The steering response of the bus was tweaked on the request of the Madrid operator. Much learning was involved in tackling the challenge of handling the high voltage systems on the bus. A third party audit was done on the safety systems, especially involving the high voltage system, and on the hybrid strategy. No loose ends in terms of safety were left unattended. Rather than go out and buy a system, Tata Motors chose to develop one on their own.

The future

Conceptualised as a platform rather than a bus, which is modular from a driveline perspective, the Starbus Hybrid makes an impressive automobile. No doubt, that Tata Motors is very upbeat about the platform. It will not be an exaggeration to say that this bus is set to define the future of buses in India once it hits the road in Mumbai. A look at the LED head lamps or tail lamps of the bus is enough to derive the future. The bus, which Dr. Jindal terms as the first ‘true’ (end-to-end) low floor bus in the country, looks set to bring about a sea change. Seeking a fine balance between technology, quality and costs, nine suppliers are supporting the body structure of the bus. Other bits like the lighting systems, low voltage wiring harness are also procured locally. The tilt-able driver console as one module was developed in India to address the definitive ISO directive of the Madrid bus. A local supplier was developed for the module. The instrument cluster developed for the top-end Prima was deployed since it was found to be suitable. It was subjected to an amount of re-engineering.

Stress, with the Starbus Hybrid, will be on motivating others to seek such public modes of transport. Stress would also be on attracting viability gap funding. States may not have enough money to fund the viability gap. Other means to do it has to be found. Set to make a mark in such a situation, the Starbus Hybrid sets an example that India too can build a world-class hybrid bus. Equipped with regenerative braking, it defines the fact that India can dream of a greener future by deploying such machines. The measure of success of Starbus Hybrid will be reflected aptly perhaps when a front engine hybrid bus with a 900 mm floor height connects a metro city with its less developed neighbourhoods. As far as the Starbus Hybrid is concerned, BEST will operate it at the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Tata Motors will train its drivers (they have been identified) and the support staff to operate the bus. Equipped with on-board diagnostics, and telematics, the bus, capable of being remotely monitored on the fly for preventive maintenance and maximum uptime, can be run as a zero-emission vehicle in pure-electric mode as well. The travel range is however limited since the (hybrid setup oriented) battery is a high power design, and not a high energy design. Set to change the way the people of Bandra-Kurla Complex currently travel, the Tata Starbus Hybrid is one bus to watch out for.

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The 5-litre engine that powers the Starbus Hybrid is a Tata Motors engine. It is made at the company’s plant at Pune. The engine, according to Dr. Jindal, has been re-engineered to fit in to their buses. It has been calibrated and matched with the generator. It is a Euro IV engine, engineered and package protected for Euro VI and beyond. It is a latest generation engine, and is the result of an initiation of the engine platforms in 2006. The platforms included a three-litre 4-cylinder engine, a five-litre 4 cylinder engine, and an eight-litre 6 cylinder engine. The 4 cylinder engine family is engineered and ready. The eight-litre six cylinder engine is lagging as the power load is being used with Cummins according to Dr. Jindal. The three- and five-litre engines have been production-ised. An example of frugal engineering these engines are, opines Dr. Jindal. He adds, “These family of engines makes Tata Motors self sufficient as far as the hybrid bus platform is concerned.” What makes it significant is the amount of freedom they offer in developing future hybrids (including parallel hybrids). Tata Motors could match these engines with AMT and a host of other technological developments to produce world-class and future ready products. Tata Motors is said to be already testing two AMTs.  

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