Dr. A K Jindal,
Head – Engineering Research Centre, Commercial Vehicles, Tata Motors
Interview by: Ashish Bhatia
Q. How has technology evolved at the Engineering Research Centre (ERC) over the years?
A. We have come a long way. Both in terms of technological depth, and areas that we cover, right to the extent of product breadths that we cover. Till 2000, the number of products that ERC was working on were limited. The frequency of new product development was low. This has increased, in terms of output almost asymptotically. Especially in case of large commercial vehicles. The number of commercial vehicle products, like in the passenger vehicle space, have expanded. They have almost doubled. Within the same product space, the number of variants has increased. The days of having a one-fit solution are passe. So, from an ERC perspective, work, both in terms of depth as well as width, has expanded. In 2005, for example, we were roughly 2000 people. We now amount to 4000 people. We also have a lot of external linkages to ensure the capture and incorporation of new technology.
Q. You have laid stress on frugal engineering and local development. How has it worked?
A. Unlike before, we are today creating everything ground up at the plant. We are creating as well as co-creating. In many instances, it is in conjunction with the suppliers. The fact is, everything is being manufactured ground-up.
Q. How do you respond to changes quickly?
A. We maintain agility through different strategies that we have adopted. We are working on a platform approach. We are also working on the re-use of existing basket of components. Over the last four to five years, we have used the platform approach to the hilt. We have ensured that the same architecture helps us to come out with a large number of products. The ‘Ultra’ and ‘Prima’ platforms are examples of this approach. We now want to take it to the next level. We want to increase process agility through modularisation. Rather than to have a discrete set of components, we are now looking at creating modules. In this approach, the entire vehicle is split in 30 to 36 modules. The interfaces between these modules are standardised. As a result when one of the modules requires a change, one doesn’t end up changing the entire vehicle. This helps tremendously in reducing the development time; in reducing the re-engineering of products. This also helps in testing and validation among various other processes. We are converting our Bill of Materials (BoM) into modular forms. We are aiming at a day when the products we manufacture are defined by the customers.
Q. How would these strategies reflect through the 15 new launches and 200 variants you plan to launch?
A. Consider the Ace, SuperAce, Xenon, the entire Light Commercial Vehicle (LCV) range, Ultra, Signa and the Prima, and it will be these seven product families that will give rise to new launches and variants as part of our modular approach.
Q. Does that indicate a change in the tear-down processes at Tata Motors?
A. The format continues to be the same. We first tear-down, and then take the performance footprint. Then, we see how the aggregate engineers will join to take stock of the key learnings. What is changing is the set of requirements. For example, the weight of the vehicles. Earlier, the weight of the vehicle was not a priority, today it is. We therefore have to link everything in terms of its impact on fuel efficiency. Everything has to be measured in terms of the impact on the overall reliability of the system. The major change in the CV space, in the light- and medium-heavy vehicles especially, are the changing requirements of the customers. Customer expectations have undergone a huge transformation. The mindset from a point of view of maintaining it at regular intervals is changing. People are not really keen to maintain or carry out recurring interventions. This is having a big implication on design, and the way we design. The way we look at component design, component testing and their integration. The integration of aggregates. It may be at a micro-level, their severity does not diminish. They are of critical importance for the future.
Q. What challenges do you face to achieve sustainable mobility solutions?
A. I would like to divide it into two parts – emission and regulations. Stress on hybridisation, and fuel efficiency is high. These rank high on the priority list. We have a very clear objective of improving the fuel-efficiency year-on-year. It contributes directly to sustainability. There are other enablers like light-weighting among others. The BSIV emission compliant vehicles will feature high level of electronics. We have an opportunity to fine-tune fuel efficiency. We are looking at five-to-seven per cent higher fuel efficiency than was attained by BSII and BSIII emission compliant vehicles. The target is to outdo it with BSVI. It will all be achieved gradually, and with focus on light-weighting, driveline optimisation, duty-cycle dependent calibrations among others. Our objective is to increase fuel efficiency through all possible means. We are working on new technologies by keeping in mind vehicle aerodynamics, rolling-resistance, etc. Hybridisation can substantially boost fuel economy. Electrification also signals a move towards sustainability. Our aim is to have technology at an affordable cost. We may refer to an European bus in the case of Starbus Hybrid. In the case of electric bus (9 m and 12 m), that does not apply. If the market migrates to a sophisticated bus, we will provide it. If we simply provide a hybrid bus as an electric variant, the costs will escalate to an extent that there will be no buyers for it. Solutions therefore have to be tailored for the market. They have to meet the market’s perceived price points. Both our electric buses are testimony to our efforts to minimise the cost impact en-route to achieving sustainable mobility solutions. We will give a product that suits a particular application of the customer, and at their price point.
Q. What is the thought process behind cross-platform interchange?
A. Engines for instance, at a broad level, are agnostic in nature. How you really integrate them is where the skill lies. For example, Toyota uses its 2.4D engine in a huge number of platforms. Keeping the base the same, how you package is what the entire game plan is all about. It is not necessary that every time we work ground-up.
Q. How is a vehicle deemed fit for its appropriate haulage type?
A. Energy balance of a vehicle is a highly precise study. On an expressway, for example, a bus runs at a fixed speed almost. Braking frequency is less. The portion of braking energy as compared to the portion of overall energy consumed will be small. The driver will cruise at a constant speed, and at an optimum rpm. There is little scope for energy redistribution. When the engine is supplying power, the losses in top-gear include aerodynamic losses, rolling losses (tyres), and losses born out the extent of energy difference between the engine and the axles. Change the engine, and one gains. In the case of an intra-city bus, energy is used in acceleration and braking. Braking makes a substantial portion of the overall consumption. As per an old study, typical of an Indian driving cycle, the braking energy was 24 per cent of the overall drive-cycle, which is a waste. Also, energy is wasted when accelerating and decelerating. It is here that the potential for improvement lies; it is about how that energy could be recovered. Till a few years back there was no knowledge available on this. With a vehicle like the Starbus Hybrid, it is possible to regenerate the lost energy. Recovered energy is fed back to the battery. This energy is used for acceleration. Ultimately, the engine will run on a constant load. This philosophy is extended to all vehicle types where the vehicle drive-cycle is studied. The use of technology is highly cycle dependent. If it is Delhi where a stop is mapped at an interval of one-kilometer, a hybrid bus makes an ideal solution. A cost analysis is necessary if one were to decide if it would be a series hybrid or a parallel hybrid. A series hybrid turns out to be expensive whereas a parallel hybrid has its own set of advantages. The latter (parallel) will be effective when there are frequent starts and stops. Where a reasonable cruising speed is achieved between starts and stops. On roads with substantial straights, a parallel hybrid is most suitable. With less scope of cruising, a series hybrid would fit the bill. A series-parallel on the other does not fit the CV space. It is used in passenger vehicles. The world will eventually move towards electrification. Hybridisation is an interim solution.
Q. With Economies of Scale (EoS) lacking, what timelines could one look at for penetration of advanced technologies in CVs?
A. In the CV space, change in technology is taking place at a slow pace. The CV industry is cyclic, and the renewal rates are longer. Mindsets are conservative. The change in technology in the CV space is therefore slower than that in the passenger vehicle space. There, the renewal rates and technology upgrade rates are higher. Volumes too are far greater. One can very quickly ammortise technological development costs on a large base. In the CV space, the same is not possible.
Q. What are the challenges when it comes to ‘Fuel-cell’ technology?
A. There are challenges, and they are surmountable. In case of the ‘fuel cell’ bus, we had to use welded joints to reduce susceptibility of leakages. We had to use stainless steel – double steel joints, to avoid leakages.
Q. How much progress has been achieved in vehicle control strategy?
A. A lot has been accomplished, and a lot needs to be accomplished. If one wants to model the cell level in a battery to predict the performance for example, it is yet to be finalised. If one wants to predict the performance of a vehicle, it is do-able. It is a function of technology, its maturity, its database internal to the company, or external to the company. Maturity comes slowly, and one has to work towards improving the fidelity of these models. On how they can be made more predictive. Any simulation model today is as good as its validation.
Q. How does the Lithium Titanate Oxide (LTO) cell technology facilitate light-weighting?
A. The most prevalent and safe technology is Lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) followed by Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (NMC), and LTO cell technology. These three have attained a high level of maturity. The shortcoming of LTO technology is the need for many more cells to be put in series to achieve the desired voltage. The good part is, the cycle life is high. In light-weighting context, because of the high lifecycle, one could do away with putting smaller battery packs and in-turn reduce weight. This leads to the concept of opportunity charging, or fast charging as we know it. A 400 kV charger can fully charge a 50 kV battery in about 10 minutes. If 5 kV has been utilised after running on one route and has to be replenished, charging will take a few seconds.
Q. Do you think LNG will cannibalise CNG as an established alternate fuel?
A. It is only the fueling method that changes. We foresee no cannibalisation therefore. Our thought process is that places where CNG was not available will be catered to by LNG. The strategy is to have multiple products for multiple places, and with multiple peculiarities. It is about what is available locally. In my opinion, both will co-exist. The only difference is in the way fuel is acquired and stored. There is no difference between a LNG or a CNG engine.
Q. What are the challenges when it comes to Intelligent Transport System (ITS) modules?
A. The current ITS is basic as far as my understanding is concerned. Bus stands are notified of the bus location, and it is about track and trace. It is good but not complete. The scope of ITS includes overall traffic management and improvement in traffic efficiency among others. Features such as these need to be integrated for the smooth functioning of traffic.
Q. Given the various fronts on which the ERC works, how do you gauge resource requirements?
A. We do not go on a resource shopping spree. What we do is prioritise. We do gap analysis to ascertain the area with a bottleneck, and how we can address it. We call for external help if the need be; from entities like Tata Technologies Limited (TTL) and others. We indulge in work-share with our suppliers too. This helps us to optimise our resource utilisation.
One can very quickly ammortise technological development costs on a large base. In the CV space, the same is not possible.