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Cummins seeks ‘doable’ electric roadmap for India

Murali Gopalan | Updated on: Feb 22, 2018
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Julie Furber, ED, Electrification, believes a gradual transition will help its plans

The mood at the Delhi Auto Expo is distinctly electric with a host of manufacturers going the extra mile to showcase their offerings.

Julie Furber fits in well with this background as Executive Director, Electrification, Cummins. The US-based supplier of engines and power generation products turns 100 next year and is now getting set to take on new challenges in the area of electric mobility.

Furber is also aware of the Indian government’s ambitious plan to have a 100 per cent electric automotive ecosystem by 2030. By the time the Auto Expo is over, all plans for a policy will have been dropped but for now, she listens intently as the topic veers around to this grandiose vision plan.

New centres

“I think it is helpful because these goals are aspirational and drive the industry forward though, personally, I think it is pretty much a bridge too far,” she candidly says. Yet, even if public transport in a city is electrified through something like this, it is a “huge step forward and a huge improvement” in air quality.

It is only natural that China crops up in this discussion given the way it is pulling out all the stops for its electric mobility vision. “China has done a fantastic job and a bit of everything,” agrees Furber. “The government has encouraged investments in industry, emissions technology, provided subsidies and has put together a whole package in driving change.”

The underlying message is loud and clear: if India wants to move a step forward, it must do something similar. “You need to encourage players to come here. We are ready to make investments but need to see return at some point,” says Furber.

Any debate on China and India can go on forever. After all, these two countries are the new centres of gravity in the new world order. “I like China’s approach in pushing technology/investments in manufacturing and it will have everything it needs to deliver to its aspirations for electric,” she says. The country is also putting things around in terms of supporting infrastructure and “thinking about it holistically”.

India, on the other hand, is aiming for the sky even though the foundations are not in place yet. As Furber says, there is more work to be done in terms of readying a supply base, charging points and, more importantly, thinking of a pace of change “where everyone can keep up” rather than going completely electric. “You need to have a roadmap that is doable and achievable and that makes economic sense,” she says.

After all, battery technology is still immature, which means countries such as India need to push forward only in some areas first. When the technology begins maturing, it becomes relatively easier to move on to other applications. To force the pace does not make economic sense (especially with no supporting infrastructure such as charging stations in place) and will only lead to chaos.

Chinese threat

Yet, it is not as if the picture is completely rosy on the Chinese front either, at least from the viewpoint of other global participants. “I am admiring of China but I am also concerned because it may end up being the world’s producer of battery cells,” says Furber.

As a result, this could be a dangerous place for the world to be in with a single country being the supply source. “I think it is beholden for Europe, India (and other countries) to ensure flexibility and variety of suppliers around the world to do that,” she says.

Hence, even as China grows from strength to strength as the world’s largest automobile market, there are other issues to be reckoned with. How other countries ensure greater parity in the electric space remains to be seen even if some like Norway are making impressive strides on this front. The US, in contrast, clearly needs to do a lot more as an economic superpower.

According to Furber, the UK is “very focused too” with its policymakers thinking about making the country a centre for battery technology, “which is really sensible in my view”. This approach will drive industry growth and help the country to become a centre of excellence while creating a robust electric supply base.

Challenges ahead

By the end of the day, there is no getting away from the fact that the transition to electric is inevitable though it will take time. Equally, it is not the sole answer to cleaning up the air either. The biggest challenge is to make sure that the technology is ready, costs are right, products are reliable and so on.

“Everything should come together and there is place for different types of technologies instead of electrification being the holy grail,” says Furber. In the future, it could be a hybrid type application, fuel cell, electric along with the tried and tested internal combustion engine. “You need that variety for a very long time to ensure the best return to the customer in terms of productivity, efficiency, productivity and sustainability,” she reiterates.

As for its applications, it boils down to horses for courses. In the Indian context, which is perhaps true for a host of other countries, buses should be the first target for electrification considering that they carry a lot of passengers, impact people’s lives and will ensure that air quality benefits are felt immediately. Costs can also be recovered over the lifecycle of the vehicle.

In the coming years, the internal combustion engine may lose its sheen in major cities such as Los Angeles, London, Shanghai or Paris, which will rapidly gravitate towards electric and the like. Yet, the old reliable will be part of the landscape beyond these metros given that diesel is still the bet for longer distances and will also be “exceedingly clean,” especially after initiatives like BS-VI.

Invest in right technology

Cummins, in its turn, will invest in the right technology without any particular bias towards one or the other. In countries such as India, the focus will be on localisation and identifying suppliers, which can help out with global sourcing of components.

Typically, decisions are first driven by policy, as in the case of China, or specific air quality issues like California even while some countries in Europe are now getting aggressive about cleaner emissions. The second phase occurs when technology gets a bit better and the range of action improves along with local regulations. Finally, the economics lever enters the picture, which is the big challenge.

“The recipe is to find the market that is ready along with willing partners to team up with,” says Furber. “We really need to understand the value that can only come from partners in order to deliver the right product and (right) value proposition.”

Published on February 22, 2018

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