India attracts foreign players in automotive research

Auto manufacturers from around the world are tying up with India’s premier academic and research institutes, both privately-run and Government backed, to develop cutting-edge automotive solutions

June 29, 2018

Faurecia, one of the world’s largest automotive parts manufacturer, which has been operating in India since 1997, has teamed up with the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore to develop new automotive solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI)

The Indian automotive industry (including component manufacturing), one of the largest in the world, is expected to reach valuation of as much as US$280 billion by 2026; The industry has received FDI worth US$18.4 billion over April 2000 to December 2017

International Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are currently on the same page with their Indian peers when it comes to incorporating emerging innovations related to zero emissions, AI, Internet of Things, among others, into automotive technology

When it comes to automotive research and development (R&D), India is steadily gaining importance as a strategic hub for both home-grown and global companies; The automotive sector represents around 8 per cent of India’s total annual R&D expenditure

The global auto industry is going through a disruptive phase in terms of technological innovations, and India has emerged as the preferred destination for related research and development (R&Ds) activity. There has been a surge in signing of collaboration agreements between global and Indian car and auto parts manufacturers with Indian academic and research institutes, backed by both the Indian government and private institutes. The agreements focus on new-age automotive solutions that incorporate zero emission technology, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), among others.

Leading foreign partnerships in auto R&D

Global automotive supplier such as Continental AG signed a preliminary agreement with India’s premier academic institute, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) Madras, in May 2018 to conduct advanced research in machine learning for safe mobility solutions. IIT Madras, well-known for its expertise in machine learning and bio-inspired neural networks (artificial networks based on the functioning of human brain), will work with the German company to provide additional safety solutions for vehicles. At the signing of the agreement, Alexander Klotz, Continental’s Head of Technical Centre India (TCI), the company’s in-house R&D centre, had said that the partnership would “pave the way for technological advancements that further reduce traffic casualties, and potentially even develop vehicles incapable of getting into an accident”. This is in sync with Continental’s long-term global strategy to achieve Vision Zero – a future with zero accidents.

Industry-academia collaborations are not new, but these tie-ups focus on developing new age technologies for a rapidly-transforming and highly-competitive automobile market. What is interesting is that they are tapping India’s premier academic and research institutes such as the 23 IITs across India and Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) as well as industry research bodies such as the Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI) to work on these solutions. In November 2017, France-based Faurecia, one of the world’s largest automotive parts manufacturer (in India since 1997), had teamed up with IISc to develop state-of-the-art automotive solutions based on AI.

Meanwhile, Swedish carmaker Volvo Cars, which has collaborated with institutions across the world–such as the Penn State University in the USA, the Institut National des Sciences Appliquées (INSA) in France, Mälardalen University and the University of Skövde in Sweden–entered into a five-year partnership with IISc to build safe and green mobility solutions. This five-year collaboration will leverage IISc’s “pioneering research in critical auto technologies” and Volvo’s “understanding of next generation requirements”, a press statement said. There’s also US-based Ford Motor and Germany Mercedes-Benz,  which are planning to work with IIT-Madras to design software for cars as well as additional safety features. Meanwhile, UK-based luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce is planning to enter into partnerships with Indian research institutions and universities for increased R&D collaboration, as part of the company’s strategy to leverage India’s engineering prowess for mutual growth.

Indian automakers targeting new technologies

It is not just international players; Indian auto majors are also using the same trajectory to accelerate their research initiatives. The rising popularity of electric vehicles (EVs) and sustainable infrastructure in India have opened up new areas of research. Last year, IIT Madras signed an agreement with Ashok Leyland, an Indian heavy vehicle manufacturer, to sponsor the Centre of Battery Engineering (CoBE) with the objective to promote R&D in battery engineering and related parts, especially for EVs. Ashok Leyland will provide US$230,000 for a five year period to CoBE at IIT Madras. Mahindra & Mahindra, another Indian auto giant, is also working with IIT Madras on electric vehicles.

Besides being a cost-effective proposition, say researchers, the global auto OEMs which have already set up their own R&D centres in India, have tied up with local research organizations to be able to provide customized solutions for the Indian market.

The automotive industry is poised to be the next transformational sector to impact societies globally. Auto manufacturers are therefore racing to develop smart, disruptive, futuristic vehicles to suit changing customer needs and to cater to newer stringent regulations for safety and emissions the world over. In addition, they are focussing on safe, sustainable solutions and disruptors such as electric, connected and autonomous vehicles. These factors combined with the “huge potential” that the rapidly growing Indian automobile industry offers are spurring international companies to do their R&D locally. Besides being a cost-effective proposition, say researchers, the global auto OEMs which have already set up their own R&D centres in India, have tied up with local research organizations to be able to provide customized solutions for the Indian market.

“All major international players know it is important to model a vehicle around local market conditions and they try to localize their manufacturing as much as possible,” says Anandi Iyer, director, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft India, a German research institute with an annual budget of €2.1 billion. Fraunhofer has tied up with IIT Madras’ Centre for Advanced Automotive Research (CAAR) and other auto manufacturers in India to develop modern automotive solutions.

India at par with global peers in auto innovations

Cmde R B Verma (retd), advisor to the Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research (IC&SR), IIT Madras, has another point of view. According to him, global OEMs are currently on the same page with Indian auto manufacturers when it comes to researching emerging technologies. “That is why they approach us specifically for research on emerging technologies such as data analytics, driver assisted steering, machine intelligence, among others. They are also at the same point of research in these new areas as we are but lack skilled researchers,” Cmde Verma adds. In fact, to meet the growing demands of the automotive industry and to provide cost-effective solutions, IIT Madras launched CAAR in October 2016 to exclusively focus on automotive research. This Centre, initially funded by the Department of Heavy Industries (DHI), will be supported by the industry and run as a consortium.

There are also other reasons for this flurry of research in the automotive sector. The Indian automobile industry’s move to a cleaner Bharat Stage VI fuel is compelling OEMs to gear up to meet new emission standards. The need to comply with these higher emission norms is driving advanced engineering and innovation at a component or system level. Meanwhile, automotive research in India is currently focusing on better road safety features, lighter vehicles, better and lighter batteries, studying solutions to recycle lithium ion batteries and control emissions, manufacturing of electric vehicle components for a green power train, to increase efficiency of engines and tyres, and on strengthening vehicle software reliability etc. A number of studies are going on to research lithium ion batteries used in EVs.

“Conventional battery manufacturers want to switch to lithium ion and have approached us to examine the possibilities. They also want solutions for recycling these batteries which happens to be more expensive than manufacturing them,” points out Cmde Verma. India is steadily gaining importance as a strategic hub for both home-grown and global companies for their innovation initiatives in R&D. The automotive sector reportedly has an eight per cent share in India’s R&D expenditure.

Partnerships to benefit all

These collaborations will not just help employ the latest innovations by researchers, they improve researchers’ skills while providing the best solutions to the auto industry. “It (collaborations) will help research institutions get their technology funded and developed,” says Cmde Verma. Such innovations will be available to Indian companies too as and when they are ready at a lesser cost. “Also, who knows, today, Indian industry is buying some technologies at a heavy cost but there may come a time when the trend may reverse with emerging technologies and global players will buy our indigenous innovations,” he says. Last year, paving the way for innovative, indigenously developed vehicles, the ARAI partnered with Cognizant, a USA-based technology company, to develop the prototype of India’s first autonomous car. These tie-ups will further drive a more industry focused research that will have a significant impact on the future of mobility across the world.