Driven By TCO
IN AN EXCLUSIVE INDUSTRY TALK WITH CV SESSION, RAJENDRA PETKAR, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER AT TATA MOTORS LTD. SPOKE TO ASHISH BHATIA ON THE TOTAL COST OF OWNERSHIP DRIVING THE CHOICE OF VEHICLE TRANSFORMATION.
Q. The Tata Ace continues to evolve since its launch in 2005. What led to its electrification?
A. This launch is as path-breaking for a Small Commercial Vehicle (SCV) as was the case in 2005 when the Ace was first launched in its respective segment. Since its first launch, there has been no looking back. The product has gone through multiple iterations of transformation, in terms of technology, in terms of the capability and in terms of capabilities to serve an array of diverse applications. It has given birth to multiple variants and met the needs of a higher payload, and a higher Gross Vehicular Weight (GVW) including springing out the passenger carrier version Tata Magic. In over 15 years of its existence, we sprung out the diesel variant and then came the CNG Ace in 2008-09. Today we have it in the EV guise. So it’s quite versatile. Through the Ace, not only have we proved the platform’s versatility with multiple options to choose from, but we have also complied with multiple regulations of the Bharat Stage emission norms including meeting the evolving safety requirements of the segment. It has stood the test of time and is very relevant even today.
Therefore, it was natural and logical for us to take the product to its next stage of evolution in an electric guise.
Q. How are you leveraging group synergies and the common architecture and sharing technology at your disposal?
A. There are two sides to it. An ecosystem is made up of both an internal ecosystem, and an external ecosystem. Quite often, people when they talk about the ecosystem, they refer to an external one. This could refer to the collaboration with charging infra companies
or the finance and insurance companies who in turn support the manufacturing company. The internal ecosystem is one which allows leveraging the architecture, the platform and its modularity, and the scalability that could follow. When we design a product like Ace, we look at what’s the right platform, and what’s the end application and the defined duty cycle which then allows us to define the technology and meet certain key vehicle product attributes for the end customer.
Q. Being a market share leader in the segment, what technical feedback from your fleet customers has gone into the making of the Ace EV?
A. We, in the course of last more than 15 years have gathered very valuable feedback. Ace is known as a highly versatile vehicle suited to several applications. It operates from the nooks and crannies of the city to the highways and therefore, keeping in mind all the diverse applications and the market practices we were sure from the word go, that we would cater to targeted applications with the Ace EV rather than build a product with a one shoe fits all approach. With the Ace EV, we always knew that the growth and development of the infrastructure had to be attended to. We zeroed on e-commerce, which is a closed-loop operating condition and one where the logistics players have sustainability high on their agenda.
Q. What are the technical synergies within the Group that you have drawn from and are there any external technology transfers or licensing for the ACE EV?
A. Many technologies are running in the background sourced from the various Group companies at the part of Tata ‘UniEVerse’. For instance, we have a synergy with Tata Technology, and one with Tata Elxsi for the connected vehicle. For IoT technology, we work with Electra, a company which is involved in the electric power train and has worked very closely with us. The Ace EV is a culmination of many such associations.
Q. What are some of the technical differentiators like the liquid cooling system provided on the Ace EV?
A. If we look at the Ace EV as the first credible EV option and compare it to what’s available in the market today, there’s no comparison. I’m talking here about the three-wheelers because the Ace EV is in a different league altogether. It offers the highest range, about 50 per cent higher than the current three-wheeler platforms out there. It offers the highest cargo area in cubic foot capacity and it offers the highest credibility. We offer 21 connected vehicle features and provide the largest infotainment screen that brings the Ace at par with passenger vehicles. There is voice recognition both in the English and Hindi language that takes the use ability a notch higher. There is a Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) and the Ace comes with two charging options for both a slow and a fast charge. The Ace is powered by a lithium-ion phosphate battery pack which is very stable, reliable, and thermally suited for the Indian duty cycle, for the Indian tropical conditions. We are quite certain that the Ace EV is going to perform very well.
Q. Are the key components rated for the claimed performances?
A. Under the Central Motor Vehicle Rules (CMVR), several tests are supposed to be performed on a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV). Tests are earmarked for component levels like the battery or the Battery Management System. There are other tests which test the vehicle in totality. This includes tests like the nail penetration test, a type of safety
testing for secondary batteries done to simulate internal shortcircuiting to check on any thermal vulnerabilities due to overcharging or the battery-discharge test. So, there are several such tests, which are designed to ensure that the EV as a whole is not prone to any kind of failure. Especially because the battery failure can be very fatal. There is great attention to going beyond regulation. And therefore, the approach toward having the liquid-cooled battery, the choice of the battery chemistry, and the approach towards packaging the product is a forward-looking one. Due consideration has been given to the placement of the battery pack for example to reduce the impact from a frontal- and rear collision. These considerations are part of our approach strategy for designing BEVs.
Q. In the product development stage, was any thought spared for using rare earth metal-free battery packs, and alternative battery chemistry?
A. Currently, the lithium-ion packs are the most popular and that is what is commercially available. There are many evolving technologies, which are in consideration like aluminium, and or sodium. Many of these are in the development stage. We are also keeping a very close watch, and looking at what’s the right time to integrate.
Q. Which is the closest alternative contender to lithium-ion? A. No, I don’t see a close alternative toppling lithium-ion. Every technology has its pluses and the minuses right. So, either, there is a compromise on the cost, durability, use of renewable energy to recharge, recyclability and so forth. There are several aspects. So, you’re good on one front and you’re not good on the other two fronts. We are looking at the maturity status of these technologies, and we will take a call when the time is right.
Q. How did you arrive at the desired energy density and overall configuration of the battery pack to ensure operator acceptance?
A. In such cases, we normally work backwards. So, we look at what is the end application that we are building for? What is going to be the adequacy of a range? In this case, the requirement is about 100 kms and we decided to offer 121 kms. The certification is typically for one to one or two to four for instance. So certified ranges for a specific duty cycle in lab conditions. In the real world, it is known, that when the vehicle is subjected to acceleration, deceleration and idling, the range comes down. Once you choose the customer-facing parameter, then it’s easier to zero in on the configuration. We look at the battery technologies, the density, and also vehicle modes. What are those energy-saving mechanisms that we can use, for instance, regenerative brakes, reduction in the parasitic losses, and calibrating the powertrain to fulfil the given duty cycle requirement? Such decisions bring down the load on the battery pack. It is easy to say that a 120 kms range will be fulfilled by a 30 kWh battery. It doesn’t help thinking that way. Because then you incur the weight and you add to the cost. We also focused on how we can improvise the range by improving the overall efficiency of the system.
Q. Is the swapping technology at a very nascent stage contrary to it being deemed as a stable technology? Would you consider it for the future iterations of the Ace EV to give operators an added flexibility?
A. We are watching this space very closely. Right now, the focus is on two- and three-wheelers from the government side. And a lot of standardisation needs to happen. Standardisation of the battery size, connectors, and BMS strategies. Then you’ll need to accept the standardised form of the battery because you can’t say no, I will make a battery, you know, looking at a case but someone might not be interested in that size of the battery. However, the standardisation is going to be a very rewarding, long term exercise. And therefore, there are certain categories of vehicles that lent themselves. For the serpent technology, two- and threewheelers are a great example. Once we do that, we all understand the nuances. And at the same time, there has to be the growth and the development of the battery swapping stations to bring about
customer acceptance. That’s the time, people would start looking at a successful model, and consider replication on other vehicles. This won’t happen overnight in the case of battery swapping.
Q. There is a market for retrofitting ICE vehicles with EV kits. A lot of Aces have been retrofitted as a testimony. With a factory-fitted Ace EV, is that market destined to not exist?
A. An OEM designs a vehicle, looking at the whole, and aspects like performance, durability, reliability, handling, safety, and longevity. Whereas, if you take any vehicle on the road, and then decide to convert, of course, it comes with age-related wear and tear. If those issues are not fixed before retrofitting, it can backfire on being transformed into an EV. We are aware of such market practices. To simply put it, I would simply say that, in the good interests of the consumer, a new EV comes with all the required safety, sophistication, and warranty support. It’s not about, saving a few 1000’s here it’s better to go for new vehicles on all fronts.
Q. What are the commonalities between the Ace EV and the erstwhile Ace?
A. The Ace is the blend of the best of the two worlds. It draws the basic platform from the iconic Ace that we have. And therefore, it’s the latest platform on which the current Ace ICE vehicles are manufactured. Of course, it has been modified and re-engineered to suit the requirements of an electric vehicle. Coming to the electric powertrain technology comprising the battery, motors, BMS, AC-DC converter chargers etc, this is state-of-the-art. Besides, the performance metrics discussed previously, the dual-charging capability, and connected features make it a contemporary product.
Q. Can we expect both vehicles to be manufactured on the same assembly line?
A. That’s the way because the ICE Ace is manufactured in Panthnagarand the EV would also be manufactured there.
Q. Will you gauge the market feedback and then come up with an updated variant of the Ace EV?
A. It’s a little too early to think down that road. Let the product go in the market while we think that we have taken care of all the aspects and all the requirements looking at the e-commerce and the logistics space. There is always a possibility because that sector also keeps evolving. We will be open to taking those inputs from logistic companies and offering tailor-made solutions as per their requirements. Secondly, there are continuous technological developments that can’t be ruled out across vehicle systems. We will always persevere on attaining higher localisation of import components to get the value-engineering right. The product doesn’t remain static. Just like in the case of the ICE Ace, we can’t discount the evolution of the Ace EV.
Q. You have the latest generation of ICE products. Were you at any point and time tempted to look at electrification of the latest products like the Intra ahead of legacy products like the Tata Ace?
A. We look at a very important parameter called the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). And so, among the various options that we had, we looked at which is the best one to go ahead with. The consideration relied on the least cost and the assurance of delivering with a large number of the carry-over parts to keep the vehicle costs under check. The Ace was able to take on all the boxes which doesn’t necessarily imply that the Intra was not a good fit. The Intra could qualify for another duty cycle.