Make auto industry deliver on its promise

Glitz and glamour dazzled. The lure of jazzy cars at the recently concluded auto show stirred up mass hysteria, clogged roads, brought the city to a near halt. The dream sellers had them all entrapped. But the dream had a green wrapper - small cars, SUVs meeting the most stringent us norms, electric vehicles, hybrid cars, even CNG and diesel hybrid buses! The show is over. But serious questions persist. Need urgent answers. The show is definitely not over…

As I trudged through the pavilions, I could feel the palpable optimism of the vehicle industry’s growth story. Potential buying power in India has gripped car makers, beckoning even the global players to move in with tiny tots for a pie of the explosive small car market. Thus, de-risk their sluggish sales elsewhere. The slew of small cars enticed the wannabe aspirants and also masked the steady shift towards mid size to big sedans.

The irony hits hard. High profile ministerial patronage and media hype – all missed the take away policy message. How soon can India benefit and absorb the tantalising green exhibits on display?

The industry had strewn teasers all around the exhibition grounds. Mahindra’s diesel Scorpio showed off its advanced diesel particulate trap capable of removing substantial deadly particulates; selective catalytic reduction technology (SCR) that can douse the obstinately high diesel nox. So did the Volvo’s diesel buses. Nah. Not for Indian market. This Scorpio is for the US consumers! I moved on and saw a four stroke two-wheeler with fuel injection system and a concept of mild hybrid plug in CNG three wheeler at the TVS stall, -- a faint green hint of the possible but not widely doable yet. Country’s first plug in electric CNG hybrid bus, Hybus from Ashok Leyland, Star bus from the Tatas may make guest appearances during the Commonwealth Games.  Battery of electric models, and electric hybrids from Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Suzuki, Tata Motors, Renault and General Motors were on the roster as evidence of what industry can do but not ramp up to deliver.

The political masters, who cut the red ribbons and, the top official brass at the show, have not asked them to. Their vision ends with the deadline of April 2010 for Euro IV for major cities and Euro III for the rest of the country. These emissions norms are not enough stringent to need these advanced green gizmos on display. The post 2010 remains visionless even though vehicles spew hugely within our breathing zone. The overtly green activism of the industry was a delight for window shoppers but not the bait for the regulators to push for a hard business model.

The new green technology on display will need more sophisticated regulations to make them work. I checked out the buzz on SCR, touted as the only immediate solution to save high NOx emitting diesel vehicles from extinction. Complicated stuff to operate and monitor. A urea tank in the bus continually injects urea solution into the exhaust to douse the NOx. Fancy diagnostics alert if vehicles run out of urea. The bus stalls if the driver fails to refill. Surely, this new technology is up against complex drivers’ behaviour! There is also the added risk of toxic ammonia emissions that must be regulated as in Europe. Are our regulators drafting strict rules before they find their way to our roads?

Apparently, the government cannot act on post-2010 roadmap unless the Union ministry of environment and forests puts its seal of approval on the six city source apportionment study that will tell us about the contribution of the different pollution sources to air quality; - to help arrive at the stringency needed for the vehicle technology roadmap. The ministry is sitting on it in the name of never ending peer review. So there is even lesser hope of seeing these advanced clean and green technologies in the market. Regulations hardly demand and enable their effective commercial entry.

Irony bordered amusement when voluntarily declared fuel economy data of the car models was seen pasted all over the Auto Expo. This time industry has declared data for two-wheelers also. A welcome gesture! But what happened to the recent promise from the Power ministry on the occasion of the Energy Conservation day in December, to enforce voluntary fuel economy labelling scheme for cars by the first week of January? What is blocking official labelling programme? Even the preparatory inter-ministerial technical talk on fuel economy standards has been stalled as the ministries seem to have pledged status quo.

Clearly, this highly pitched industry activism, attractively displayed advanced green exhibits looked very politically correct, inconsequential and symbolic in a show otherwise designed for hard sell and volume growth of competitively priced small cars, the usual sedan and SUVs meeting the upcoming Euro IV for a few cities and the outdated Euro III. There is not even a date when the entire country will be asked by the government to meet the Euro IV. Oil companies have already slipped on the promise of Euro III fuel for the April deadline. This in reality was the ugly shadow of the glitzy shine.

The auto show was certainly not the spring board to leapfrog for an industry nurtured with care by the government with fiscal sops. At the first hint of economic crisis the government had slashed taxes on all cars and special duties on SUVs last year. Industry was spared the worst effects of the global downturn. It worked. Passenger car sales have soared by more than 20% and so have corporate profits. But actual technology delivery is minimally incremental.

As this year’s pre-budget consultations warms up, lobbies are already working overtime to hang on to the sops. This must change. The roll back of the stimulus to cars should begin this year. Choc-a-block roads are already the clinching evidence of cars not paying the true costs of congestion and pollution. Any further sop should be linked only with rapid commercialisation of the green and advanced technologies that the industry has bragged about at the auto show, and, with the actual fuel economy levels of the vehicle models.

The onus is now on the government to dare the industry to deliver on their promise and make the change real.