In India, hybrid vehicles are more attractive in the short term: Tim Leverton

Homegrown carmaker Tata Motors is on a comeback move with new launches such as Zest, Bolt and Tiago as it aims to claw back the market share it has lost in India over the past few years. While these cars meet existing customer needs, the company is investing in building technologies such as driver assistance, hybrid and electric drivetrains, and is even working on ideas of what car ownership will be if the sharing economy kicks off, says Tim Leverton, head of advanced and product engineering at Tata Motors, in an interview with Alnoor Peermohamed. Edited Excerpts:

The slump which existed in new model creation at Tata is gone. Do you think the momentum will keep up, and are we going to see a lot more new platforms from Tata?

I started at Tata in 2010 and that was the time when the previous strategy in terms of the cars that were being released came to an end. Around 2011-2012 is when we were working on what our portfolio strategy should be for the longer term. That's resulted in establishing a pipeline of products which you've now started to see come to the market. The Zest, Bolt and Tiago are of course the first ones and we've already showed at the (Delhi Auto) Expo the Kite 5 and the Hexa. The Nexon is next in the pipeline.

This will continue at this sort of a pace. We have to look at the efficiency of our platforms so we want to make as many products from the same platform as we can. We also have to upgrade and innovate, so we'll bring new platforms in the future and that's part of a maturing car company and finding our place. We need to be present in all of the main segments in the market and so that's our plan. We'll take another three or four years to complete this.

Everyone is talking about autonomous and electric cars and the broad consensus is this is what the future of cars is going to be. Do you agree?

There's clearly a movement globally towards more and more autonomy and ultimately autonomous cars will come. It's important for us in India to understand the technologies, which are behind that and the way that it will come into our market will be gradual. The technologies which are being developed as part of the autonomous car will come as driver assistance in India.

So some low-speed automation or functions such as parking and maybe when you're bumper-to-bumper. I think the technologies that are coming out, if you talk about sensor technologies, camera technologies, radar technologies, these are all things that can be deployed to aid and improve safety on our roads in India and this is what we're working on in terms of bringing some of those technologies into our cars.

We've actually been very active across the whole space of electrification. A couple of years ago in the UK we had a year-long trial of a fleet of 25 electric Vistas. We've proven that technology, but the barrier is the economics, and the infrastructure of charging and supporting those type of cars in India isn't there yet. More attractive in the shorter term is hybrid. We are actually quite advanced in our hybrid commercial vehicle systems and we've now got our first orders for hybrid buses. At a principle level we've had to develop technologies at a different scale for a bus than a car, but it will come into cars as well in the future.

JLR is now doing very well, and one of the things we heard quite early on was that Tata will utilise JLR's technology and skills. Has that happened and at what level?

We've used some of the background technology to support our engine strategy. The new engines, especially the Revotron engines, will use some of the same technologies that JLR developed for its new Ingenium engine family. Over the coming years this will increase, particularly as we go to BS VI and more stringent levels of emissions. But really where we found success is in terms of transferring technology and know-how.

Our development processes were developed together with JLR, with their best practices to improve our design, engineering, quality, testing, allocation. On energy storage, for example battery systems, we have a joint team. The actual specifications of the battery will be different, but the basic technologies will be the same. That's how some of the synergies are being brought into our company.

Self-driving and electric cars are a bit farfetched for the Indian market, but we've now begun seeing the concept of a connected car come in. What is Tata doing on this front?

We've just joined the development consortium with Google for Android Auto, but our main strategic partnership for infotainment has been with Harman. With the Zest we brought in the HUD (heads up display) unit which you need to deliver the apps coming from Google and Apple. More or less, every six months we're bringing new apps and new functionality to that. We realised this was something that needed a different approach.People now expect the functionality of their smartphone to be available in the car.

For example, in the Tiago, we have turn-by-turn navigation even in the entry level variants. We've worked with MapMyIndia, and we've been able to build an app that transfers directly from the phone to the screen with directions for navigation. Free-to-use navigation system in a car in this segment, it's the first time that's been done.

On-demand taxis are challenging the concept of car ownership. Are car manufacturers, including Tata, making a conscious effort to design future cars for that scenario?

This new trend of the shared economy is happening in all aspects of life and not only in the car industry. Of course we're working on what that will mean for us and what the future will be in terms of ownership experience and what will be provision of a service.

I don't think there is a single answer, but we're uniquely positioned because we're playing in every aspect of the transport system itself - personal cars, commercial cars, moving people and moving goods. All of these aspects will slightly change their pattern and it's up to us to be in the lead of shaping that and providing innovation to offer new value to customers.

We see this happening in the developed markets already. Young people in the US and Europe are less interested in ownership of vehicles. In my own view, the demand for mobility won't go down, it will be there, it will be very strong because it's part of freedom, but it will change its pattern.

In India perhaps we're faced with more megacities than other countries have had. We're already talking about four or five megacities, but if you talk about Europe, London is the only megacity. So we actually have a pull here to come up with good solutions for our lifestyle and that will give us a competitive edge in international markets too.