- Huned Contractor
Slowly but surely, the Indian automotive industry is waking up to the fact that passenger cars, commercial vehicles, off-road equipment and even two- and three-wheelers need to be not just fuel-efficient but also safe and comfortable.
Ergonomics, as conventionally defined, is the study of people's efficiency in their working environment. Applied to the automotive sector though, it works in conjunction with the aspect of safety to ensure that not only is driving a comfortable experience but the vehicle is as safe as possible. The fact that this continues to remain a rather neglected area in automobile engineering is time and again highlighted through news reports of accidents and mishaps leading to an increasing number of fatalities. This is more so in India despite the fact that the country is emerging as the fifth-largest producer in the world of passenger cars. According to government records, a serious road accident occurs every minute and an average of 16 deaths occur on Indian roads every hour.
Accidents and causes
The data released by the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways reveals that over the last three years, light motor vehicles have been accounting for about 22.2 per cent of the accidents in India. In early 2014, Global NCAP crash-tested five of India's popular cars -- Maruti-Suzuki Alto 800, Tata Nano, Ford Figo, Hyundai i10 and Volkswagen Polo. The organisation chose the entry-level versions of each model, which form a fifth of the total passenger vehicle sales in India. Not surprisingly, all the cars failed in a frontal impact test at 64 kmph, and received zero-star adult protection rating. None of these models come fitted with airbags, a security feature that is mandatory almost globally.
Furthermore, the test revealed that in the case of the Alto 800, Tata Nano and Hyundai i10, even if the cars had been fitted with airbags, the extent of the structural weakness was such that even the airbags would not be effective in reducing the risk of serious injury. As Max Mosley, Chairman, Global NCAP, puts it, "India is now a major global market and production centre for small cars, so it's worrying to see levels of safety that are 20 years behind the five-star standards now common in Europe and North America. Poor structural integrity and the absence of airbags are putting the lives of Indian consumers at risk. They have a right to know how safe their vehicles are and to expect the same basic levels of safety as offered in other parts of the world."
The same year, the government, in its draft Road Transport & Safety Bill, proposed the setting up of the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme, under which cars will be tested for their safety through front-on and side-on crash tests and cars being sold in India will adhere to at least the basic global safety measures. Among other safety measures, cars will have to come with compulsory seat-belt alerts, anti-lock braking system and child lock. However, the new safety norms, which will unfold in phases, will come into complete effect only five years from the date of notification, as manufacturers need time to redesign their assembly line and also develop products that adhere to the new safety norms.
Fortunately though, even if the government's measures to tighten vehicle safety remain weak, the demand from consumers, especially those who purchase high-end cars, is on the increase. According to KPMG's Global Automotive Executive Survey 2015, safety innovation as a purchasing criteria has witnessed a rise from 42 per cent in 2013 to 50 per cent in 2014 to a massive 74 per cent in 2015. And one of the most important safety measures that is being introduced by almost all car makers is the airbag. So much so that by 2020, overall revenues from airbag sales in India are set to rise 11 per cent a year to hit $2 billion, outpacing the 9 per cent growth expected in China, according to data from Transparency Market Research. By then, India is expected to be selling over 5 million cars a year.
Some of the world's largest airbag makers - Autoliv Inc, Takata Corporation, TRW Automotive Inc and Toyoda Gosei Co - are already beefing up their investments and production capacities in India. For instance, Rane TRW Steering Systems Ltd, a joint venture between the US-based TRW and India's Rane Holdings Ltd, opened a new airbag assembly plant in August 2015 in southern India with capacity to make 5,00,000 units a year. It expects revenues from the airbag unit to reach Rs 3.5 billion by 2020, from
Rs 400 million as of now. The company also has a facility to make seat belts.
Catering to customers like Ford India, Renault Nissan, Mahindra & Mahindra, Maruti Suzuki India, Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland and Daimler India Commercial Vehicles, the company exports nearly 15 per cent of its seat belts volume to Brazil, Colombia, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries. "With the Indian Government promoting occupant and road safety to significantly reduce fatalities, we expect the automotive industry to introduce passive safety technologies to meet these regulations. The commissioning of this new facility demonstrates the company's commitment to support technology evolution in the passenger vehicles," says Harish Lakshman, Managing Director, Rane TRW Steering Systems Ltd.
Meanwhile, serious attention is also being paid to ergonomics with automobile manufacturers, including makers of commercial vehicles and off-road equipment, enhancing the comfort features for both the driver and the passengers. For example, cars, trucks and buses now come equipped with a wide range of information and comfort equipment such as rear-view camera, reverse sensing system, back-up alarm, remote start, grab handles, convex spot mirrors and drop-down ladder racks. One of the companies that has taken major initiatives in this sector is Faurecia, a leader in vehicle interiors. In 2012, the French engineering solutions provider set up a state-of-the-art technology centre in Pune with an investment of Rs 110 crore for automotive interior systems, automotive seating, and automotive exteriors.
Illustrating how automotive ergonomics works, Christophe Schmitt, Executive Vice President, Faurecia Interior Systems, elaborates: "The Audi A8 features Faurecia-designed seats - the industry's most advanced seats with almost infinite possibilities that includes a host of high-end features such as pneumatics and massage function or the rarely seen calf rests in the rear, as well as all-round premium aluminium decoration. Another example is of the Peugeot 208 in the value segment, where the instrument panel developed by us features painted decoration parts and reflects the new driver cockpit as wanted by Peugeot. You can see here the obsessive attention to detail like the vents at the end of the dashboard in the shape of a cat's eye and the numerous components to enhance the driver and passenger experience. The glove box of this vehicle has been completely engineered and developed at our Pune centre."
In fact, ergonomics and vehicle safety is not just about the exteriors and interiors. It also covers the material that goes into the making and assemblage of those parts. One such company that has been making rapid strides in this segment is Henkel Adhesive Technologies India, a subsidiary of Henkel AG & Co, Germany, which set up a technology centre in 2013 at Hinjewadi in Pune to focus on innovative technologies and solutions to cater to customers across many industrial and consumer sectors, including, in particular, the automotive and transportation industry in South Asia, Middle East and Africa.
With the company's leading products such as Loctite, Teroson, Technomelt, Aquence and Bonderite, among others, catering to 60 per cent of the users in the 'build and assemble' segment and the rest in 'maintenance and repair', its products in the automotive segment find applications in windshield bonding, body repair, mechanical repairs and servicing, original equipment service parts, automotive aftermarket, and retail. Some of its global customers include Tata, Caterpillar and John Deere. What distinguishes Henkel's innovation centre is that it not only develops, tests, and validates new adhesives and sealants but is also working on new verticals, one of them being NVH, structural and sealing solutions for vehicle body assembly.
"We are constantly working on devising new solutions for reducing noise, vibration and harshness in vehicles, among other products. Our user-friendly products - ranging from pumpables to preforms to semi-assemblies - enable our customers to achieve targets for vehicle weight reduction, economy of assembly, and efficient use of floor space. Our sealing solutions like Teroson, Terostat and Terolan play a critical role in vehicle comfort and durability, while providing strength and safety," informs Shabbir Attarwala, Director of Product Development, Henkel Adhesive Technologies India.
Role of MNCs
In fact, the role being played by the MNCs to take the Indian automotive industry into a higher league of comfort and safety is immense. Continental Automotive Components, for instance, has been constantly working on enhancing its extensive portfolio of automotive and rubber products to match the emerging global standards. The company makes a wide range of electronic products at its Bangalore plant, including engine management, power steering ECUs, immobilisers, body control modules, and instrument clusters. It also manufactures complete brake systems, powertrain and chassis sensors, fuel supply modules and fuel rail assemblies at its other locations in India. In addition, it supplies ABS/ESC, airbag ECUs, pumps, injectors and sensors and now, with the integration of Emitec Emissions Control Technologies, it offers metallic substrates, partial flow filters and SCR dosing systems to complete its powertrain portfolio.
Continental's newly upgraded tyre plant in Modipuram manufactures and supplies both radial and bias tyres for a range of vehicles while ContiTech has a power transmission plant in Sonepat and conveyor belt production unit in Kolkata. At its Technical Centre India (TCI), engineers have been engaged in creating advanced driver assistance systems. Continental's one-channel ABS solution, MiniMAB, is a small and lightweight solution for scooters and small motorcycles while the two-channel ABS solution, MK100 MAB, provides improved brake control and thus more driving safety through optimised deceleration.
Among the many recent developments, ContiTech has developed lighter and more resistant materials for vehicle components. These include a protective gaiter for premium-class passenger cars. Attached inside the wheel arch, it protects the elements of the vehicle's air suspension against stone impact, thereby extending the service life of the sensitive area. What sets the new version from ContiTech apart is the material used, which the company has developed specifically for these applications. The main component is thermoplastic polyurethane. It is much more flexible and has greater rebound strength than the standard material made from thermoplastic polymers. This means that its resistance capability is much greater," informs Girish Kamala, Head, Key Account Management, Continental Automotive Components.
ContiTech has also launched a new torque clutch. The weight of this component is less than half that of previous variants. This helps to reduce the overall weight of the vehicle, driving down fuel consumption further as a result. This is possible because of the materials used. One important element is carbon-fibre-reinforced polyamide. A similar material is already used for other vehicle components such as transmission crossbeams and torque rod supports. The assembly also contains components made from thermoplastic polyurethane. This combination makes the torque clutch particularly abrasion-resistant. The material reduces wear throughout the entire service life of the component. In passenger cars with electronic steering assistance, it links the engine with the transmission at the steering and protects the transmission by compensating for the axle offset in the event of wear.
Accessories such as braking lights, flashers and sensors play an important role in ergonomics and safety too. For instance, Auto Electronics, a Pune-based supplier of components to OEMs such as Tata Motors, Bajaj Auto, Force Motors, Woodward Governors and Greaves Cotton, has been instrumental in ushering in innovations in the space of flashers and starters to make them more precise and reliable. "We specialise in digital DC CDI for two-wheeler engines to start with as low as
200 RPM, digital AC CDI with inputs from a magneto, digital AC/DC CDI-cum-flasher, analog AC CDI, 12 V rectifier and regulator with input from magneto and output to a head lamp, AC regulator-cum-flasher which is used in vehicles without a battery,
12 V battery charger for rickshaws and AC/DC convertor that is used to provide DC supply to the horn. These products may be small but are crucial in terms of making a vehicle safer," points out Y S Natu, one of the partners.
Summing it up, Shrikant Marathe, former director of the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) makes it clear that the stage has come when automotive manufacturers will have to pay as much attention to ergonomics and safety as emission and fuel consumption. "Given this emerging scenario, the ARAI has been playing an instrumental role in testing and development so that vehicles adhere to the new norms of the industry. For example, we have a special Structural Dynamics Lab (SDL) that extends its expertise for validation of components like seat, cabin, chassis-attached components battery and spare wheels, engine mounts, and electronics or instrument car panels. All this and more will eventually make our vehicles much safer and comfortable," he says.