Not Here To Decide The Best Solution, But To Offer Customers Different Options

Interview September 2019 Ashok Leyland EV E-Mobility

Ashok Leyland is steadily gearing up to be part of the electric commercial vehicle journey and claims to be the only company in the world that offers a modular architecture with a variety of energy management options. Auto Tech Review met up with Karthick Athmanathan, Head – EV and E-Mobility Solutions, Ashok Leyland to understand how it is going to address the challenges of future mobility.

Karthick Athmanathan comes with a rich multi-domain and techno-commercial experience of more than 30 years and has been serving at Ashok Leyland for over 15 years now. He has been at the forefront of electrification of commercial vehicles as the Head of Ashok Leyland’s newly-constituted Electric Vehicle (EV) and E-Mobility Solutions. At Ashok Leyland, Athmanathan has successfully handled ground breaking projects like the Captain Cab, Sunshine School Bus, Circuit EV Bus, Hybus Hybrid Bus among a host of others. He has served as the Chief Engineer for buses, cabs and load bodies as well as managed the product development for Optare – Ashok Leyland’s UK subsidiary, who are world’s pioneers in electric & hybrid buses. Athmanathan was also instrumental in recasting the company’s global bus portfolio, targeting new markets, trends and segments. Prior to joining Ashok Leyland, Athmanathan was a successful entrepreneur and had promoted, developed, managed and sold two businesses in die making, product engineering and IT domains. A B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from IIT, Madras, Athmanathan is passionate about travel and wildlife.

ATR _ The country’s EV ecosystem got a much-needed shot in the arm with the announcement of the FAME II scheme earlier this year, followed by the Union budget. What’s your assessment of the policy measures undertaken so far for facilitating an EV ecosystem?

Karthick Athmanathan _ From the commercial vehicle perspective, the government schemes support this segment in two areas – public transport (city) buses for which the subsidy goes up to Rs 55 lakh, and small trucks or local city delivery trucks for which the subsidy goes up to Rs 1.5 lakh. The bus subsidy is so good that if you are a state transport undertaking (STU), on a seven-year total cost of ownership (TCO), it is much cheaper to buy an electric bus than a diesel bus. The FAME II subsidy for buses is a good incentive and makes money sense for people to transition to electric buses on account of the seven-year TCO. On the goods side though, it does not sound attractive since there is a cost to be paid per kilometre to actually make money sense out of light electric tracks.

Among all applications, two-wheelers and passenger cars do around 30-70 km a day, while commercial vehicles such as light commercial vehicles (LCVs), autos, buses do anywhere between 150-200 km a day. So, the payback and cost parity in commercial vehicle applications are much better.

Overall, the FAME II scheme is an attractive policy, although there are problems, in terms of minor details. The government scheme has allotted adequate incentives and more importantly, it has put localisation pressure for subsidy, which will help develop the electric vehicle ecosystem as well as ensure costs keep coming down. The onus is now on the State governments, OEMs and banks to respond to the FAME II scheme and make it successful. OEMs on their part are ready and will be able to take care of whatever demand that arises.

Karthick Athmanathan said the localisation pressure for subsidy will help develop the electric vehicle ecosystem

Ashok Leyland rolled out an integrated electric vehicle (EV) unit at its Ennore plant last year. Can you throw some perspective on the capabilities of this facility?

Our integrated electric vehicle unit is equipped to carry out designing, conduct prototype, test as well as process prototyping and offer design solutions for electric vehicles. The in-house facilities include engineering, prototyping and testing for motors, battery modules and packs, and a power electronics lab. Further, the EV unit is equipped with digital tools for manufacturing and field tracking. Ashok Leyland probably has the most advanced capabilities within our team in the country. We have battery groups, motor groups, algorithm groups, power electronics groups as well as integration and calibration groups.

It is a simple facility with a capacity to assemble four vehicles per shift. The idea is to keep increasing capacity as and when we see any market movement. We have positioned ourselves in such a way that we will never be found wanting for capacity. For now, we have no plans to add a new line, but will expand once demand for electric buses grow. Further, body building for electric buses have already started at our Alwar facility. We have multiple capacities for body building, but for chassis integration and other calibration work we do it at our Ennore plant.

Developing new technologies is capital intensive. How is Ashok Leyland focussing on forging collaborations, partnerships and joint ventures to assert its presence in the electric vehicle space?

Ashok Leyland is actively engaging with a plethora of technology partners – academic institutions, suppliers, start-ups as well as engineering and consulting firms abroad. Mind you, we are not engaging with one single party because no single party has all the technology globally. This is a brand new area for us. No one in the world has evidence that their electric vehicles will run successfully in tropical climate. The duty cycle of commercial vehicles is even worse than passenger vehicles and the best way forward is to bring in people, who already have competence and background in the EV space.

Ashok Leyland has entered into different agreements with people in the UK, Germany, Israel, India as well as in the Far East, but none of them are joint ventures or have fiscal interests. We would look at partners in the future, who would join us in investment so that our investment exposure can be reduced, if not eliminated. We are talking to people in China and Turkey, among others, as this will help reduce our investment exposure in the EV domain.

Give us an insight into Ashok Leyland’s modular architecture.

We are the only company in the world that offers a modular architecture with a variety of energy management options. We are not here to decide on what is the best solution for the customer; our job is to offer different options that customer needs. We are offering battery swapping as well as fast charging solutions, and in the future, we intend to offer flash charging as well.

As far as modular architecture is concerned, our controller strategy, motor strategy, power electronics or battery strategy – each one is basically independent of the other. We can keep moving technologies for any of these. Broadly, we have electrified our existing diesel semi-low floor platform and have come up with two buses under the same platform (9.4 m & 12 m). These are chassis-based systems with robust and proven aggregates ideal for Indian road conditions. These have been well received in the market.

What’s your perspective on electric vehicles given our tropical weather conditions?

We have zero evidence of electric buses operating in tropical climate. India has six major aspects that do not exist abroad – monsoon rains, dust storms, city duty cycles, peak summer temperature, daily range of temperature within a day (maximum/ minimum) and roads – all problem areas. It is critical that we put in place an architecture that is stable and safe. We have been running reliability trials over the last few years and kept encountering various problems/ issues that we have solved now. Our products are being successfully delivered to customers.

What is Ashok Leyland’s battery strategy for its electric vehicle programme?

To be honest, our battery strategy is not to have a strategy, because it is a constantly-evolving sector and will remain so over the next four to five years. It is not a very smart thing to commit to any particular strategy. We are spending a lot of money and time on continuously researching and evaluating options as they emerge. It is important to be nimble and that is the reason why we have put up a modular architecture. The minute there is a value proposition for a certain battery chemistry or physics, we will be able to bring it up for our customers without having to be burdened with commitment already in hand.

We don’t think it is time to bother about cobalt or lithium, although there is a lot of media debate over the same. It is a matter of time before cobalt is irrelevant. Tesla operates in a mass market and so they have reasons to be worried. Once we start making 20,000 buses and 60,000 trucks with electric batteries, I can be worried, but definitely not with manufacturing 200-2,000 buses. We need to keep monitoring what is happening across the globe as things in the EV space are going to evolve. Maybe EVs will mature as much as fossil fuels after 10-15 years, when all research would be completed. That is when one type of battery, one type of technology and one type of charging solution would have evolved. The need of the hour is to stay smart and represent your customer interest at all times.

Ashok Leyland’s battery strategy is not to have a strategy because it is a constantly-evolving sector

What’s your take on battery swapping in the Indian context?

I see battery swapping as an attractive option for a country like India. Of course, there are technical, operating and viability challenges but that does not mean you walk away complaining. We are focussed on the job on hand and solving customer issues. Our battery swapping has been running satisfactorily in Ahmedabad, where we had delivered our electric buses.

There is a great deal of talk about the automotive industry moving to a shared mobility model from one being ownership-driven. What’s your assessment?

For now, we are not focussing much on shared mobility as we don’t have any products in this space. As a commercial vehicle player, we are focussing on shared transit since we believe shared transit is not far off, especially for last mile connectivity. Shared transit will be a reality in four to five years because it becomes attractive for passengers and operators and holds immense potential over the medium term.

What is the future you perceive for IC engines?

Vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) are here to stay and is not going to go away in a hurry. I am confident about the fact that 50 % or more of the market will be ICE-driven by 2035-2040. You have to understand the fact that there are huge developments still to happen in electrification before it makes sense for every auto application to move away from ICE. There is little doubt that we will continue to witness growth in ICE numbers. Having said that, electrification is part of the future and we have to take it seriously. At present, electrification does not offer viable or feasible solution for all automotive applications.

TEXT: Suhrid Barua

PHOTO: Ashok Leyland