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Tatas eye LNG as fuel of the future for CVs

MURALI GOPALAN | Updated on December 18, 2014 Published on December 18, 2014

New path: Tata Starbus Ultra on LNG

Prima LNG

Tata Motors is betting big on the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to fuel its buses and trucks.

According to AK Jindal, Head – Engineering (Commercial Vehicles), the company has carried out a preliminary evaluation exercise with Indian Oil Corporation. LNG terminals are already part of the Gujarat landscape with Kochi and Mangalore scheduled to follow suit.

For industrial consumers, LNG stations are being set up along the west coast and extending this to include dispensing stations would be quite viable. “If a truck has to travel from Gujarat to Mangalore and further to Kochi, filling gas will not be a problem,” Jindal says.

Big potential

LNG tanks can give a range of around 800 kilometres and from Tata Motors’s point of view, it boils down to incorporating these (tanks) in its vehicles. With CNG already available as a fuel option in the fleet, there is no change needed in the vehicle or engine. It is only the tank that matters to facilitate LNG application. Tata Motors is already in the process of getting necessary approvals for using the fuel in commercial vehicles (CVs). “Once this is done, we can get vehicles on the road,” Jindal says. There are potential customers such as state transport undertakings which are reportedly keen to use LNG in buses.

Over the next 3-4 years, there is a strong possibility of Bharat Petroleum Corporation getting LNG from its Mozambique field which has rich reserves. Once infrastructure in the form of pipelines and terminals is in place, the fuel could be supplied to other parts of India,

New transmission

Apart from LNG, Jindal is equally upbeat on automated manual transmission (AMT) which has done the trick with a section of car models. For the moment, Maruti has incorporated this feature in its Celerio and Alto while the Tatas have it in the Zest and will replicate it in the Bolt due to be launched next month.

“In cars, this has been introduced to assure more driving comfort while in commercial vehicles, the idea is to improve fuel efficiency, truck life as well as ease of driving,” Jindal says. He sees no reason why AMT will not be as successful in the company’s CV range. “The way we look at it, AMT will become standard in the years to come for buses and trucks, particularly heavier vehicles,” he adds.

In Jindal’s view, it is only lately that transmission has become an area of focus unlike engines which constantly dominated the headlines. “Today, people realise that a lot needs to be done in transmission and AMT is only a small step in that direction,” he says. Tata Motors hopes that this technology will be fitted with its intermediate CVs by the end of 2015. The idea is to start off with its Starbus Ultra bus range before extending it to medium and heavy buses. The company will then explore the option of using AMT in trucks too.

Jindal believes this feature will be a big help as it will do away with a “lot of criticality” that accompanies driver training. Consequently, the person behind the wheel would not have to deal with the routine problem of wrong gear application which can cause needless damage.

“Even with a bad driver, you can get top-class fuel efficiency which cannot be said for manual transmission,” he says. In the process, AMT could help truck makers draw more people to drive vehicles. The industry is grappling with a huge shortage of drivers and the promise of added comfort through initiatives like AMT will, hopefully, fill this void gradually.

In the pipeline

There are a host of other technology-related projects that Jindal and his team are working on at the company’s Engineering Research Centre in Pune. This is what prompts Ravindra Pisharody, Executive Director (Commercial Vehicles) to be upbeat about the road ahead even while rivals like Daimler, Volvo, MAN and Scania are keen on getting a slice of the CV pie.

“We have been preparing for competition over many years now and this was the reason why the Prima range was created. We have accepted that this is inevitable in the Indian market but are confident of our strengths in service and customer relations,” he says. Hence, even while new vehicles and competitors come in, the bus or truck customer is the same. Pisharody says these are people who have been part of the “Tata heritage” for years. “Sure, they will experiment with new products but I am confident they will stick to us for the strengths we offer,” he adds.

The company is also looking beyond India for its CVs. Indonesia is seeing the first full year of operations and numbers are “going up every month”. In Australia, the Xenon pickup was launched a year ago and is all set to rev up its presence. An entry to Malaysia is scheduled in February with Vietnam to follow. The Prima has also undergone extensive trials in the Middle-East and South Africa this fiscal.

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Published on December 18, 2014
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