CV industry gears up for a challenging tech transition; some bet on only two options for industry and govt investment – ET Auto

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Even as CV industry players, including Ashok Leyland launch CNG and LNG trucks, these fuel need not be pushed as that may amount to “just distracting ourselves”.

The compulsion from the national and international decarbonisation drive to develop technology solutions to replace the commercial vehicle (CV) industry’s current fuel of choice, diesel, is keeping the technology teams in the automotive industry busier than ever before. The Union Government’s directive to the industry is also clear – move away from fossil fuels including diesel.

The shift from diesel has been quite swift in the passenger vehicle (PV) industry, with the fuel option being present only in a sub-segment or two now, from a time when around 70% of the PV market preferred diesel. For the CV industry, it can be a case of easier said than done. Dr. N Saravanan, CTO at CV major Ashok Leyland, says the “biggest challenge” for the CVOEMs is to decarbonise the existing diesel products, and that’s necessary as the diesel truck “is not going away in the near future”.

A thought process that has emerged in the recent past at Ashok Leyland’s technical centre, and of other OEMs too, is to develop engine platforms that can run on more than one fuel, with some modular changes . “Now we are saying, instead of just being a diesel or a gasoline or CNG, it has to be (fuel) agnostic,” Dr. Saravanan told ETAuto.

Volvo Eicher Commercial Vehicles (VECV) is also taking a similar approach. ” We are now upgrading our engine and the engine platform which we are using for diesel and CNG, for hydrogen internal combustion (H2ICE) engine,” R S Sachdeva, COO, Eicher Trucks and Buses, told ETAuto. This approach is being taken by OEMs as well as a global powertrain supplier like Cummins. Sachedva says, “In an engine, below the cylinder head, everything is almost common for all the three technologies”.

Cummins claims that its 15-litre fuel-agnostic engine platform with a base engine tailored for carbon-free Hydrogen or biogas, can reduce carbon emission by up to 90%.

VECV is in the process of investing nearly INR 1,000 crore on developing alternative fuel technologies, including BEV. Around 30% of the amount has already been spent, and the rest is expected to be invested in the next “4 to 5 years”.

Though options like CNG and LNG are being worked on, they may play transitory roles to what the CV industry would eventually move to. “We expect the shift towards electrification to be through the enhanced use of blends and alternative fuels,” says Rajendra Petkar, President and CTO, Tata Motors.

In addition to alternative fuels “there is another emerging pathway to near-zero emissions in the form of hydrogen-based combustion technology”, he adds.

There’s an industry-wide urgency to develop new powertrain solutions. And, that’s necessitating collaborations for technology development. While that may be so, Petkar says, “This co-development should not be limited to just developing technologies and components, it should also focus on building capabilities for servicing, customer education and other related aspects.”

Darwinist approach

The CV industry is investing thousands of millions in developing new technological solutions however there’s no absolute clarity on what the future holds. In such a scenario, does it merit to have a Darwinist approach of investing by industry players and Government in developing multiple technologies, or would it be more prudent to choose a set of technologies and put all efforts to scale them up swiftly?

Dr. Saravanan believes the latter may be a more fruitful approach. Citing the example of the world’s largest EV market, China, he says, “If you look at why EV is dominant in China, it’s not because of a Darwinian approach. Government pushed EVs. Now they’re pushing fuel cells to the next step.” According to him, the Indian Government has done “reasonably well” in promoting EVs.

He feels that like EVs, Hydrogen technology (H2ICE and Fuel Cell) deserves to be supported, as Hydrogen technology would be suitable especially for larger trucks. Even as CV industry players, including Ashok Leyland launch CNG and LNG trucks, these fuel need not be pushed as that may amount to “just distracting ourselves”.

Whether a Darwinist approach to choose the right technology/ies will work, Pradeep Kumar Thimmaiyan, President – Product Engineering and CTO, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles, doesn’t know, but what he’s confident of is that a human- centric technology approach will click. “Human beings will prefer the convenient form. So, if there is no convenience, then there has to be external force. There is force, there is threat that we are spoiling our only place. That force is always there, even with that convenience will play a role,” he says.

To find that technology of convenience, like what diesel and petrol have been for decades as the energy sources of choice, patience and perseverance from all stakeholders will be key. “Out of all these technologies on which thousands and thousands of engineers are doing research, convenience will emerge. In which technology? Nobody knows today, because there are so many streams of development happening in different technologies, it will take some time. And we are in that period where we have to go through this phase until this convenience emerges,” says Thimmaiyan.

BEV and Hydrogen, the winning horses?

After giving a good fillip, especially to electric two and three-wheelers, the Government is now looking to promote electrification of trucks. In a LinkedIn post recently, Dr. Hanif Qureshi, Addl Secy, Heavy Industries Ministry, said, ‘While electric trucks might not be a common sight on Indian roads just yet, considering the rapid progress in other EV segments, it’s likely that India’s electric trucking industry is poised for future growth’, and also shared a graph showing BEVs having the least TCO in a comparison with diesel, Hydrogen ICE, Hydrogen Fuel Cell trucks in California. A similar Study may be on in India with the report expected in June

On the Hydrogen side, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) had allocated INR 17,490 crore towards incentivising green Hydrogen production, and manufacturing of electrolysers.

BEV technology will be more befitting for smaller trucks though, opine some industry leaders. A recent order of 500 units of Ashok Leyland-owned Switch Mobility’s IeV4, and the Tata Ace EV debuting with an order book of 39,000 units may be seen as indicators of prospects for light electric trucks.

VECV, which has only one EV, a 5.5 tonner, in its portfolio, plans to enter the emerging space in a big way with multiple EVs in the 2 ton to 3.5 ton range. Like Thimmaiyan, Sachdeva believes customer convenience will be the major factor for the success of any new technology.

And, what could be the technologies that future trucking would ride on, for a more sustainable future, and in the journey towards net zero? “Going forward, in another four to five years, there will be only two things to talk about. Either you have an EV side, or you have got the hydrogen-led fuel technology,” says Sachdeva, who’s also an industry veteran.

If the future could be so, it may merit for policymakers and industry players to collaborate and align their efforts towards common goals, which would also help the planet while also helping optimal use of resources.

  • Published On May 22, 2024 at 08:02 AM IST

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