Q & A
Dr. Venkat Srinivas,
Vice President & Head, Engineering & Product Development, Mahindra Trucks and Buses Ltd.
Interview by: Bhushan Mhapralkar
Q. What challenges are you looking at with BSVI round the corner?
A. There will be huge challenges, and huge opportunities too. It was the same in the instance of BSIV. We got an opportunity to differentiate ourselves. For instance, we have been offering common-rail technology on our products as a Group for over 10 years. The experience and synergies we have had as a Group have helped us. The synergies in the area of powertrain have helped us to get a good start. We have been offering BSIII LCVs with common-rail engine technology. We have a lot of application knowledge, not just at Mahindra Research Valley (MRV) but also at Pune. It was developed at a BSIII emission norms came into force. We had some pre-Blazo vehicles – HGVs, in the market. These were 40-tonne tractors. When we launched the BSIII Blazo a year and a half back, we built upon that experience. We added fuel-smart technology to turn the whole equation into a highly successful experience. It gave us the confidence to offer the mileage guarantee. No truck has come back in that regards. The move to BSIV made common-rail technology a necessity. A debate on EGR and SCR played out at the earlier stages. It was important to finalise the architecture. EGR is a good option for smaller vehicles because of the power to weight ratio. A five-tonne LCV typically operates with 70 hp engine in the Indian context. It signals a power to weight ratio of 14 hp per tonne. While the loading in smaller vehicles is often partial, it is exactly the opposite in bigger and heavier vehicles. The power to weight ratio of a 49-tonne truck in an Indian context is between 4 and 4.5 hp per tonne. The engine is operating at full load most of the time. If EGR technology is applied, it brings compromises. A 100 per cent fuel air mixture is not provided to the engine. Exhaust gas recirculation is 15 to 18 per cent. The engine is not burning as much fuel in a duty cycle. The result is less output. Thermal efficiency goes down. Carbon deposits rise. Engine life also goes down. We chose the newer generation airless SCR. This technology will help us to migrate to BSVI.
Q. What advantages does airless SCR offer?
A. Airless SCR uses less power over an air-assisted system. Performance of airless SCR is better. There are fewer parts and less complexity therefore. Reliability is high, and the cost of service is low. We dealt with our supplier base to ensure that the airless SCR system is price competitive. We had to make the business case work internally for us. The choice of airless SCR makes sense for as far as our customers are concerned. Airless SCR is easier and less costlier to service. Our move to BSVI will not entail an engine change. Many engines between five- and six-litre capacity will be extremely underpowered as BSVI units.
Q. What about the costs incurred to graduate to BSVI technology?
A. The costs will go up, and the reason why we are carrying out technology assessment. From that point of view, we are carrying forward our engines except for one engine in our LCV range. We will carry forward our choice of technology. Our BSVI compliant HCV range will be supported by our 7.2-litre engine. We will go with SCR, and with different calibrations. There will be the addition of DPF. There will be cost addition. The cost delta for different manufacturers will be different. We would be leveraging the investments we have made.
Q. Does it hint at an opportunity to develop more powerful engines to tap new, heavier CV segments?
A. Depending upon the growth of such segments we could definitely look at that. We have to also consider that we are not that large an organisation at the back end either. We have ambitious plans. We do have some platforms to consider. We have to pick our battles in the context of priority. There are gaps in our portfolio that we need to fill up. ICVs and some more play in buses.
Q. What new technology would you offer in buses?
A. Our bus play has been quite successful in the school segment. We have had a limited success in the staff bus segment. We are working towards improving the product portfolio in the staff bus segment. In the current portfolio of up to 40 seats, we have developed a wider body bus. It measures 2.5 m in width over 2.2 m of a conventional bus body. The wider body bus will help us in staff transportation. It will also enable us to offer other bus body, chassis and powertrain level changes. To suit the requirements better, there will be wider seats, and better elbow room on offer. There will be chassis level improvements to achieve superior NVH and comfort. Air suspension is on offer as an option too. Migration to a new platform is part of the strategy. There will be a migration to ICV type of buses. We will also offer new powertrain for ICVs – for trucks and buses. In the case of alternate fuel technology, we are already offering CNG. LNG has been in the news. Distribution is still a challenge. LNG storage and delivery in vehicle is expensive. We are working to crack that problem. LNG services are being piloted at Kochi, and availability to LNG is likely to get better along the west coast. LNG engine technology is not a challenge. Challenge concerns its distribution. As far as the engine is concerned, there’s not much change between a CNG and LNG calibration. LNG calls for the packaging of one large tank. Since it is in a compressed form, it should give a good range. Some weight reduction is possible on an LNG vehicle when compared to a CNG vehicle. LNG tanks are expensive. We will therefore continue to watch this space closely. If we feel that the adoption point is close, to will serve the market.
Q. What about electric CVs?
A. An electric bus has already been announced as part of the electric vehicle portfolio. We are working on that project. It is the T32, T40 and T42 range. From a technology stand point we are well prepared. We have the group company, Mahindra Electric, which has done such projects. We are working with them on the bus project as well. While the project proceeds there are some enablers, which need to happen. One is the cost of the electric power pack. There is interest for local manufacture, which should reduce the costs. The other is the range. A conventional, or even a battery powered bus would call for a range of 200 to 250 kms. An electric bus should also need range like that for a city operation. The range for electric vehicles is still talked to be between 100 and 120 km. Challenges in the area of battery cost and time to fully charge remain. An interesting development in this area is that ministries have come together, and under the purview of union minister Piyush Goyal, are looking at battery swapping for buses. The bus has to travel 50 km before the battery is swapped. The battery thus has to be brand agnostic. The batteries could be charged offline, and away from the bus. The time required is assured. The float can be decided on the number of batteries, and depending on the number of buses as well as the kind of routes to be run on. If the 150 km requirement comes down to 50 km with battery swapping, the cost of batteries will come down to one-third of what it is today. Some level of incentive will be needed, but viability will go up many folds.
Q. Are you looking at something that will be path breaking?
A. Every aspect of the power pack has been scrutinized. If anything new that can be offered, which others have not yet offered. It is subject to a study of what can be done differently. Despite the group experience in electric passenger vehicles, we are approaching electric (commercial) vehicle architecture ground up. We are looking at what the market requirements are for a bus. What learnings of Mahindra Electric can we take so that our learning curve is faster. We are looking at better energy management, better drives, and better storage. We are keen to look at these and the other aspects for an electric bus rather than take a system and upscale it.
Q. The kind of intelligence you would want to build into?
A. We have learnt what we need for the market. Consider the IPR bit, and it is quite complex. Mahindra Electric brings in a good deal of it. The ‘fuelsmart’ technology on trucks helped us to understand how customers use their CVs – HGVs in particular, in various road loads and applications. We have acquired a large database regarding that. This helped us to extend ‘fuelsmart’ technology on the diesel load LCVs that we introduced on the Jayo and Optimo platform. A lot of usage assessment and profiling that we did has given us a detailed understanding of how our products are used. Combine that with Mahindra Electric’s ability to optimise energy management for electric vehicles, and we are looking at a big advantage. The resulting vehicle is certain to be state of the art in terms of energy consumption. There are many out there who can integrate an electric power pack. To arrive at an optimal combination is a different ball-game altogether. The control systems and the development of IPR for efficient management of energy are of prime importance. Mahindra Electric has done a lot of work in this area, and is bringing to the table a lot of learnings. We are bringing a market perspective to the project. It could translate into engineering duty cycle.
Q. How close or how far are we in terms of connected CVs, or autonomous CVs?
A. We have come to look at autonomous vehicles in the form of classical western definitions. It leads to how we are going to look at technologies like adaptive cruise control. This technology is already found on some cars in India. So, it can happen. Technologies like blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and AEBS need to be looked at. For example, how will blind spot monitoring work in Pune’s traffic? There will always be someone in the blind spot. Rather than take a literal translation of western definitions and the feature content that is being defined in this domain, the need is to upscale our understanding, which is small when compared to the western markets. Our curiosity in this area is very high. We are very keen to understand what and how technologies can be relevant. We can build intelligence on the top of the ‘fuelsmart’ technology that we have developed. There is no need to look at driverless vehicle as the holy grail. They may happen 10 or 20 years down the line. There is a need to pick up relevant technology and add intelligence to it. For example, drowsiness alert systems. These, I feel, will be quite relevant in the Indian market. Drunk driving enforcement is not high, and makes a technology like drowsiness alert extremely relevant. There is also a need to find out what is relevant for what application. Off-road segments are perhaps a bit more conducive to automation. On-road there is still an amount of heterogeneity in terms of traffic. In a controlled environment like a mine, an autonomous vehicle can do more. We at Mahindra Trucks and Buses will continue to make our CVs smarter. We will not wait for the regulations to call for it. We will look at other triggers to find out what we can add. A lot of electronics in the form of an ABS system, the engine ECU, the digital instrument cluster, etc., are already there. The need is to leverage them, and to create something better. Every year we will make our trucks and buses smarter. It will take us towards autonomous CVs.
Q. What will the future CVs look like?
A. The driver will become an important part of the ecosystem. We are putting a lot of thought into how we can make the ecosystem better for the driver. It is the driver who spends the most of his time with the CV. We are paying attention to how we can get more productivity from the driver by making it more comfortable for him. The instrument cluster has become a lot more versatile in BSIV guise, and would provide a lot of information. It is about using connected technologies like Wi Fi, Bluetooth and our DigiSense platform. DigiSense is a standard fitment in the Blazo BSIV. We will continue to offer it in our other platforms as well. A lot of information obtained as data is made available to the driver. It is also made available to the fleet owner. This ensures better transparency and management of the data. It could be used for service indicators, diagnostics, and for trouble shooting. This, as connected vehicle technology, will empower the driver and the fleet owner in ways that we have not seen or imagined. We are trying to unlock the potential, a result of which productivity will improve. We want our customers to make more money. There are companies like Tesla that are approaching a problem from a very different angle. We need to learn about them. Some of them are sitting with hordes of cash that they can spend on various experimental ventures. The industry as a whole, I think, is learning from it. The speed of innovation of such companies is something that we can adopt. We may not spend a trillion Dollars or experiment as much, we will however experiment in smaller ways and learn from the experiments of others. We have to be a fast mover and identify the application specific requirements. For example, to experiment with Lidar technology to deliver a certain application. It will have to be done quickly. The basic technology and resolution can be developed by someone else. We will have to move fast in deploying it.
Q. What synergies could we look at as you strive to make smarter trucks and buses?
A. We have a lot of synergies playing out in the Group. The challenge is how do we leverage these synergies. As a Group we are getting better. We are looking at synergies that are beneficial to both. We are working with many Group companies. Our powertrain development comes from MRV. They have engineers at Pune too. A lot of work thus goes on in the area of engine, clutch, transmission, aftertreatment, etc. A lot of work is going on in the area of CNG and other alternate fuel modes. We carry out application at Pune. MRV for example developed DigiSense in association with Bosch and TechMahindra. We have discussed with TechMahindra. They are going to do technology days for us. Their speed of development is such that we have to understand it to leverage it. We are going to have technology days on our premises where they will tell us about relevant technology. This will help us to quickly identify the levels at which we can associate. Synergies are on going, and we could do with more of them.
“We dealt with our supplier base to ensure that the airless SCR system is price competitive.”
The ‘fuelsmart’ technology on trucks helped us to understand how customers use their CVs – HGVs in particular, in various road loads and applications.
We are very keen to understand what and how technologies can be relevant.