With so much of talk around electromobility, we decided to speak to Rashmi Urdhwareshe, Director, Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) to know her perspective on how the country is geared up to transition from ICEs to EVs, as well as her views on other energy sources. The country’s EV focus should be on public transportation and subsequently on creating public infrastructure for EVs, she said. Excerpts from a freewheeling interview:
Rashmi Urdhwareshe has been consistently the pillar of strength behind the growth and success of the Pune-based Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) – the country’s apex vehicle testing body. Urdhwareshe, who took charge as ARAI Director in the second half of 2014, has successfully handled a wide gamut of responsibilities over the years, in areas of automotive electronics, instrumentation & controls, quality management, homologation & standardisation, international harmonisation of automotive regulations, vehicle type approval certification, export homologation, laboratory accreditation, etc.
Born in Nagpur to professor parents, Urdhwareshe leads from the front, in terms of taking up challenges at ARAI. Interestingly, she kicked off her professional career as a trainee engineer at ARAI in 1983. Urdhwareshe completed her post-graduation in Electronics Engineering from the Collegwe of Engineering, Pune. She is a former NCC cadet, a state-level bridge champion as well as a trained sitar player.
ATR _ As the Indian auto industry starts making a transition from ICE to electric vehicles as per the government’s 2030 go-all-electric mandate, how do you assess this transition?
RASHMI URDHWARESHE _ These are indeed challenging times for the industry. I think the government’s direction of going all electric by 2030 has to be interpreted in a right manner. Go-all-electric does not mean that all vehicle categories should go electric – the country’s EV focus should be on public transportation and subsequently we can focus on creating public infrastructure for EVs. The need of the hour is to focus on electric mobility for auto rickshaws, buses and taxis as it is easy to deploy charging infrastructure at auto stands, taxi stands and bus depots. We need to create success stories around these segments and once that happens, the acceptance of EVs will increase. I feel that it is very much achievable because policies are in place and action plans can be certainly drawn. As far as personalised mobility is concerned, I don’t think consumers are ready to absorb EVs.
How do you think the challenges related to electromobility can be overcome?
The Indian auto industry has been vibrant enough to take on challenges and I’m sure the industry will respond to the challenges positively. Engineers love technical challenges! The first and most important thing will be to increase the acceptability as well as commercial viability of EVs on a large scale than just the pilot/ experimental introduction. I can definitely see customer awareness among modern city dwellers be it Delhi, Pune or any other city that want a pollution-free environment. People in these cities are talking about moving to cleaner transportation solutions and these are the areas where acceptability will be very high. There is a need to move in a structured manner towards creating the EV infrastructure as well as bring the ownership cost down. After the current government’s go-electric announcement, cities are coming forward and investing heavily and are willing to create public infrastructure for charging and enabling electrification, which I think will be a major game changer.
How is ARAI’s E-mobility Centre of Excellence likely to help shape the EV journey across the country?
We perceive that this e-mobility centre of excellence will help in multiple ways in handling technology – ranging from creation of charging infrastructure, developing vehicular technology solutions, knowledge management, providing testing/ validation facility and skill development. ARAI will focus on one more aspect – collaborate research and develop an ecosystem for enabling technology to be made available for quick absorption. We do not have the time to reinvent anything; it is important to adopt technology for Indian-specific requirements and move faster to achieve the national objectives. This centre has all the testing and validation infrastructure at component level, systems level and complete vehicle level.
In addition, it provides R&D for start-ups as well as simulation-based technologies that can be effectively used for fast development. ARAI plans to create a web-link with the Ministry of Heavy Industry (DHI) for inviting collaborative research as well as technology transfer services. There are multiple institutes that are working on development of battery or motor technologies – it will be important to integrate these so that we can achieve our goal of electric mobility.
The battery cost of electric vehicles has always been a big talking point – how do you think a concept like battery swapping is relevant for the Indian market?
It is a worthwhile concept. India should try this out in a controlled manner in small battery packs. Keeping in view environmental and usage duty cycles, operational safety would be a big concern that needs to be addressed. Swapping concept works well with standardised packs and specifications. Two- and three-wheelers could therefore be good candidates for trying out the battery swapping concept.
With so much EV talk, how do you see the ICE space shape up? Do you think it will play a second fiddle to EVs or replaced completely or can co-exist together with EVs?
ICEs will certainly stay – co-exist is the right word, because there is no such thing as dominance of one segment over the other. Sectors such as construction and mining, commercial agriculture tractors, long haulage trucks, special purpose vehicles, etc, will continue to be dependent on ICEs.
In the future mix of propulsion technologies, what role do you see for hybrids?
Hybrids would have been a natural and logical choice had it not been for the government’s focus on pure EVs. Technically, hybrids are much easier to adopt. I also see a space for retrofitment of vehicles done through hybrids. Such retrofitments would offer dual benefits – increase fuel efficiency as well as reduce emissions. For now, because of the government’s immediate electrification goals, OEMs as well as ARAI have shifted their efforts towards EV development and the focus on hybrids is taking a backseat, but the technology is very much relevant for India. I believe that we should pursue it for after-fitment of vehicles to clean up the existing fleets.
Be it BS VI emission norms, the 2030 all-electric target or safety regulations – the auto industry seems to be under pressure to respond to all these challenges.
The auto industry is certainly under tremendous pressure. It is important for OEMs to reshape their investments and also ready up their Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers, as the supplier base for all these technologies is very different. The time available for all these is so short that effectively managing their product portfolios is a big challenge. Similar challenge is there for ARAI as well – our resources and capabilities are also being planned to support the development, validation and final approvals. Nevertheless we have been anticipating the dynamic demand and are able to shift our focus and work towards alternate energies.
ARAI is not just focusing on electric mobility but also on very actively developing alternate energy solutions, where IC engines would continue to play a role if not in pure petrol or diesel mode, but in dual fuel variants working on various blends or combinations of alternate energies. We anticipate that there is immense potential to explore these possibilities in parallel to EVs.
How does ARAI plan to address the enormous challenge of testing the huge number of engines in the country today for BS VI compliance?
ARAI has created additional test centres and is scaling up its operations multi-fold. We have invested heavily with support from our parent ministry as well as from our own research funds in our facilities at Kothrud and Chakan. We have augmented the technical capabilities and skills of our testing and homologation teams. Our teams have undergone extensive training, working on optimisation using simulation technologies as well as working on advanced after-treatment devices and other newer areas involving green fuels. ARAI is focusing on collaborative work; drawing up joint research programmes with fellow institutes to accelerate the speed of technology development. ARAI has also internally created a Technology Group that acts as a think-tank to bring in technology solutions to cater to the industry needs. ARAI is working with most of the OEMs for reengineering their vehicles to migrate to BS VI. This covers the entire range of products – two-wheelers all the way up to buses, trucks and tractors.
There is a lot of talk about India’s own car assessment programme – Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Program (BNVSAP). How prepared are we to make this programme a success?
If we look globally, such safety assessment programmes are not regulated by the government or through any mandatory norms. It is usually regulated by insurance and consumer demands – the purpose is to enable the consumer to select the product on the basis of its safety rating. The draft protocol of the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme has already been announced, but the government is yet to announce who will be administering it. As far as ARAI is concerned, we have full testing and certification capability as per this protocol as well as Global NCAP. It is seen that vehicle manufacturers are voluntarily coming forward and seeking to carry out such evaluation tests.
ARAI has lined up its 2020 roadmap that includes a big focus on light weighting of vehicles – how that is shaping up?
ARAI is working closely with the Department of Heavy Industry to develop competencies and techniques for lightweighting through concepts like smart structures, materials & composite development and forging processes. These projects are undertaken through the government’s cess funding. One of the completed projects involves developing an aluminium super structure for buses that will help in electric bus development programmes; light material and lighter structures will help enable electrification to a large extent. This project is close to its successful conclusion and the technology is now available for transfer. We are also working on high strength steel development and material characterisation with various combinations of alloys at the material level. At the manufacturing level, the forging industry is coming forward with research projects related to energy saving and process optimisation and quality improvement.
How do sum up the future of the Indian auto industry?
Given the changing scenario, it is important to ride the right wave. Policies such as ‘Make in India’ are already creating the enablers. The need of the hour is to encash them by developing the complete ecosystem that will be a big advantage for India. India has a large supplier base; we have material development and manpower resources. Given all these, India has a huge potential and I have no hesitation in seeing a bright future for the automotive industry.
TEXT: Suhrid Barua