Auto brands take tech test on voice-driven cars, joystick-run wheels

Interior of a car

File picture of a car's interior. Photo: Shutterstock



Cars that understand voice commands, bike seats that reshape themselves to cushion the rider and bikes that rebalance themselves according to the riders’ position and two-seaters on four wheels that can be steered through busy streets with a joystick—stuff that once seemed straight out of a sci-fi movie is making its way to Indian showrooms. Some of these were showcased at the recently held automobile expo in New Delhi and companies have already begun taking orders and set their launch dates; others have lined up a schedule for their India debut. But across automobile companies such as Renault, Maruti Suzuki, Yamaha, TVS Motor and even commercial vehicle makers such as Ashok Leyland, technology is being seen as the biggest brand differentiator in the coming years.

For a few years now automobile companies across the world have been driving their technology teams at breakneck speeds, accelerating investments and stitching up collaborations to get the industry ready for the coming of the young, tech-savvy and socially aware consumer. Now many of these innovations-cum-inventions are making their way into Indian showrooms, indicative of a shift in customer perceptions among auto companies in the country.

Many however are skeptical of the extent to which companies will deliver on these brand promises in the Indian market. Among the big challenges are poor infrastructure, battery cost and lack of policy support, most are especially concerned about these in the context of the big electric vehicle (EV) push from the government. But that is not really keeping companies out of the lab; a total of around 28 market-ready electric vehicles across different segments are in the making. These include 11 in the passenger car, five in buses, two each in small commercial vehicles and three-wheelers and eight in the two-wheeler segment. EV is the centre around which most of the new launches are focusing their technology-led innovations.

Kenichi Ayukawa, MD and CEO, Maruti Suzuki says "As we go forward, attractive new design, the best of technology and a superior experience will remain our pillars to delight our customers." Speaking on the same, in a recent interview, he had said "....if we cannot do, we cannot survive. We have to do something to catch up with the requirement and demand of customers.”

Recently, Maruti showcased the e-survivor, a technology that allows a car to flit between being driven to being driver-less. This, the company says, is a safer application of the invention as it lets the driver decide on the mode applicable. Ayukawa adds, “This is a fine blend in which analogue and digital co-exist.” Maruti has set up an R&D facility at Rohtak at the cost of Rs 38 billion.

P Bala, chief technology officer at the Ratan Tata-backed Ampere Vehicles recently said that the automobile’s journey is not towards an electric vehicle, but an electronic vehicle. The first big move in that direction is the change in battery from lead-acid to lithium. The vehicle itself would be a network, connected with other vehicles around it and other objects and the amount of sensors required would multiply, he added.

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Kenichi Ayukawa, MD and CEO, Maruti Suzuki with the e-survivor, a vehicle that can switch between being driver-less to being driver-led, will be launched in India in 2020



Yamaha’s MOTOROiD is another example, which the company said is the result of its research aimed at creating a new rider experience based on motional value. Using an advanced balance control system, the machine senses its own state, moves to the upright position by means of changing its centre of gravity and maintains its position. In addition to be able to recognise its owner, it acts more like a riding partner by responding to its rider’s behaviour through various functions. It uses Yamaha’s proprietary technology that makes use of sensors and electronic balancing equipment connected to a central controller to stabilise the bike, maneuver bends and turns, and go about by itself.

All auto companies are turning the lens firmly on the young consumer, who they believe is keen on new tech, believes in green mobility and is at the same time practical about the use of a personal set of wheels. Korean auto major Kia, the most recent entrant in the Indian market is pitching its stylish looks and differentiated motoring options as key USPs, but says that technology will be a crucial game changer. "But it (technology) should be practical for the customer and he should feel the benefit," says Manohar Bhat, head-marketing and sales at Kia Motors India.

His company unveiled a new SP Concept, which it said would keep the Indian market preferences in mind while being fitted with the latest tech. It plans to launch by 2019. Bhat said that the company would look into the kind of technology needed in the country before offering it to the buyer, a lot is available with companies globally but does it make commercial sense to bring it all in right now is the decision companies need to make.

Indian consumers could surprise many believes Sumit Sawhney, CEO and MD of Renault India. "We have seen a shift towards better design and technology," he added. His company showcased a two-seater electric coupe, Trezor along with ZOE e-Sport Concept, a fully electric vehicle at the recent expo. Another company moving forward on the tech front is TVS Motor. It has recently launched a 220cc single-cylinder engine bike 'Zeppelin' coupled that comes with a host of first-time tech-enabled features. For commercial vehicles, Ashok Leyland recently unveiled the Circuit S, an electric bus powered by ‘Sun Mobility’ smart batteries. The bus should hit the road in three to six months the company said