It was at a CII event not long ago that I had occasion to hear Dr. V. Sumantran deftly chairing a session on ICT applications in the automotive industry.
During a subsequent interaction with Business Line, over the email, Dr Sumantran – Executive Vice Chairman, Hinduja Automotive Ltd, & Chairman, Defiance Technologies Ltd, Chennai (http://bit.ly/F4TSumantran) – answered a few questions on the theme ‘Electronics in vehicles, the game- changer.’
Excerpts from the interview
What is the stage of research and innovation happening in vehicle electronics in India?
The honest answer to this question must really be that the glass is only half-full and therefore also half- empty. On the one hand, the rate of expansion of vehicle electronics content (now approaching 40 per cent by value in some of the newer European luxury cars) and complexity leaves one with the feeling that we have not yet effectively closed the gap between global state of art and the situation in India. On the other hand one must draw some encouragement from small pockets of innovation and development.
Within our own Group, one of our companies is engaged in advanced telematics hardware and software at globally unbeatable cost. We have some firms in India engaged in cutting edge software in systems development for the very complex vehicle electronics architecture in Europe. In Ashok Leyland too, some of our newer vehicles will employ a very contemporary next generation electronic architecture that will be scalable more or less over the next decade.
How do you see the trend of increased use of electronics and allied technologies such as connectivity, data capture and communication in modern-day vehicles?
I remember how, a decade ago, while working at GM Research in the U.S., the combination of technologies such as On-Star and e-mail with text to speech, made significant contributions to personal productivity. These capabilities have mushroomed over the last decade. For example, during the most recent Commonwealth Games, Ashok Leyland demonstrated a plug-in CNG hybrid bus in Delhi, which throughout its operation was streaming live vehicle data to the Blackberry of the program leader in Chennai. This was a development of our group company, Defiance.
Given the state of physical and digital infrastructure in India, what is the extent to which electronics can play a role in improving the transportation solutions in India?
In my view, I am more encouraged by the more rapid advances in electronic infrastructure compared to physical infrastructure. India has adopted distributed and cloud computing, and user-customised solutions; this, despite the much slower pace of physical infrastructure development. I can only hope that prominent examples such as the Delhi International Airport will be a sign of acceleration for our physical infrastructure as well.
Does ICT in vehicles enable the ‘green’ cause?
I am firm in my conviction that ICT can lead to greener systems. With these, one can see benefits in areas such as logistics systems productivity, traffic congestion avoidance, and automated use-based toll collection. Looking forward, one can look to inspiration from the aerospace industry and look for advances related to analytics, sensor information fusion, and semi-autonomous capability. These are all tangible examples of contributions to a lower CO2 footprint through the employment of ICT.
For instance, Albonair, one of our group companies based in Germany, employs advanced electronic controls to diminish exhaust emissions for the latest products in Europe. Through electronics and chemistry they achieve Euro 6 emission levels, two generations ahead of the recently launched BS IV in India.
In which areas do you see India playing a major role, as regards vehicle electronics?
We will have to go back to our intrinsic advantage in the areas of software. Increased employment of ICT and the drive towards intelligence systems will demand a much larger role for the software and systems engineer. Fortunately, India has achieved notable credit globally with our large pool of skilled software engineers. However, I am equally convinced that we must move beyond our competence in software alone to hardware also.
Would you like to specify the skills and competencies that Indian youth can aspire to acquire, so as to be relevant to tomorrow’s vehicles?
When I see young people in India today, I am greatly encouraged by their curiosity, uninhibited entrepreneurship, and spirit of adventure. Furthermore, I see their obsession with media, games and electronics to be easily channelled to the topic of our discussion. Close to home, my own nephew has jumped from enthusiasm for computer games to his project involving a miniature autonomous self-stabilising quad-rotor mini-UAV, which is a project that offers a terrific combination of learning and recreation.
Your suggestions on policies that can promote the use of electronics in vehicles.
The electronics industry has been one that has fortunately stayed a step ahead of being driven by regulations or policies. Evolving from a truly entrepreneurial model, they have been purely motivated by consumer interest and value to the society.
Nevertheless, in India, to address our relatively large handicap in electronic hardware, suitable policies would no doubt provide the much-needed boost. Having been a member of the committee, I am aware that investments in science and technology, and in specific areas such as solar photovoltaic and silicon chip manufacture, have seen increased funding in the Eleventh Five Year Plan.