Failure as a prologue to success

V Sumantran | Updated on April 22, 2021

Tata Nano An engineering philosophy that emphasised intelligent minimalism

GM’s EV1 and the Tata Nano were commercial failures. But they spawned numerous creative designs globally

A new era is upon us when society, governments and the auto industry all now seem convinced that the future of automobiles belongs to electric vehicles (EVs).

A technologist who is familiar with Gartner’s hype cycle of innovation will acknowledge that this credence could have been bestowed only after a trial by fire, when people behind the technology and related innovations would have traversed the highs of showcasing revolutionary breakthroughs inevitably followed by the lows of numerous failures in honing promising ideas into practical use for society.

In celebration of its 25th anniversary this past week, several industry news feeds offered paeans to General Motors’ EV1 — the first saleable electric vehicle offered by a large automaker. A milestone in the evolution of EVs and a true clean-sheet design, it was a product that benefited from the considerable technical might that the GM of 1990s possessed.

Recognising that a fully-charged battery in the EV1 contained the energy equivalent of one gallon of gasoline, every attempt to improve mechanical efficiency was employed. High efficiency three-phase AC induction motors, specially crafted low-rolling resistance tyres, and a novel heat-pump in the place of a conventional air-conditioning system were all innovations employed to eke out a few more miles from that meagre store of energy.

EV1, ahead of its time

As a young aerodynamicist at GM Research at the time, I recall the effort taken to deliver a streamlined body with a drag coefficient of 0.19 — a standard that still remains elusive to contemporary products. A modern Tesla Model S, acclaimed as the world’s most aerodynamic car clocks in at 0.21. Sadly, as one more product that was ahead of its time, GM scrapped the EV1 after less than 1,200 vehicles were made. To many, this was another example of profligacy at GM.

Any retrospective look at the EV1 would do little more than massage bruised egos if it failed to recognise the implications of the EV1 and its impact on the subsequent evolution of EV technology. In reality, the disbanded teams would resurface in many geographies and out of the ashes of the EV1 deliver new products that would become part of modern EV landscape.

The propulsion team went on to Allison and became well established suppliers to many EV bus fleets around the world. Heat-pumps in the climate control systems are now more frequently employed in modern EVs. Some of the motor and controller teams relocated to California where their systems were embraced by Tesla. Tesla’s chairman, Elon Musk has often acknowledged the motivation that GM’s sad decision to scrap the pioneering EV1 provided for him personally.

In India too, we have witnessed a similar journey.

Nano’s journey

In March 2009, when Ratan Tata launched the Tata Nano, it was seen as a breakthrough product aimed at serving the mobility needs of the common man at a previously unmatched price. It gained for India credibility as a global source for cost-innovation in engineering.

Contrary to the notions of rustic engineering associated with the epithet “jugaad”, both the Tata Nano and the Tata Ace were conceived with an engineering philosophy that emphasised intelligent minimalism. Pursuit of minimalism was a goal that motivated many of auto industry’s great designers. Soichiro Honda’s mantra was “man-maximum, machine-minimum”.

Alec Issigonis designed the iconic Mini which revolutionised small car packaging. And Dante Giacosa’s elegant engineering created post-war Italy’s affordable people’s car — the Cinquecento. Their approach to design is best described by Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, who said, “To design a desk which may cost $1,000 is easy for a furniture designer, but to design a functional and good desk which shall cost only $50 can only be done by the very best.”

Yet, like GM’s EV1, Tata’s Nano was also sadly a commercial failure.

Yet, from its ashes too numerous creative designs have spawned and been applied globally. I recall a conversation with Gordon Murray, one of Formula-1’s prominent designers of that era. The Nano, he averred, opened his eyes to a new angle of creativity.

“I have spent my career delighting in shaving tenths of kilograms off my race-car designs. So, I can well imagine the exhilaration of intelligently shaving tenths of dollars off the cost of a product”. Murray then went on to develop a new range of innovative small cars that could be produced with very low investment.

The Indian element

More importantly, the erstwhile Chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn, was a believer in the Nano philosophy. With his patronage, the Renault-Nissan Alliance adopted the bold decision that their entry-level global platform CMF-A would be developed not in Paris or Tokyo as would have been normal, but in India.

That this platform was conceived in Chennai, with a healthy complement of ex-Tata staff from the Nano project, and developed with a mostly Indian team is a ringing endorsement of the talent and skills of Indian engineers in cost-innovation.

Apart from the Kwid that restored Renault’s market share in India, newer platform variants like the Nissan Magnite and the Renault Kiger have lowered the entry price of Crossovers for many Indian middle-class families. And now as Renault prepares to offer France’s lowest cost EV in that market, it will be the Dacia Spring — also built off the Indian origin CMF-A platform.

In a world now familiar with the dynamics of start-ups, the term failure is not perceived as terminal condemnation but rather as a description of a temporary state. After all, the collective endeavours of motivated employees and entrepreneurs can seldom result in outcomes that are useless. Failure, they say, is not the opposite of success but rather an important component of success.

The poet Arthur Clough would say, “Say not the Struggle nought Availeth”

The writer is Chairman of Celeris Technologies and the author of “Faster, Smarter, Greener: the future of the Car and Urban Mobility”

Published on April 21, 2021

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