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More to Auto expo than Tata's Nano

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Feb 15, 2008 | From the print edition

The weeklong Auto Expo, which concluded in Delhi on January 17, showed contrasting trends--low-priced cars, reincarnated buses for public transport and high-end technologies that promise a green future.

The cynosure was Tata's Nano with its populist price tag that perhaps made the expo attract record number of visitors. Besides Tata Motors, Bajaj Auto also announced its foray into the ultra low-cost car segment. They are out to lure the aam admi and are setting the trend in frugal engineering in the mini-segment. Predictably, small cars ruled the roost.

The Nano effect was so overpowering that it nearly overshadowed the exciting changes in the bus segment. Responding to the growing policy demand for specially designed urban buses, companies have come forward with swanky and smart buses for public transport (see box: No more rickety contraptions). Comfort features such as low floors, wider doors and low-noise rear engines, among others, mark their entry. The buses are equipped with gps for tracking, improving passenger information systems and planning efficient routing. Ashok Leyland has configured the concept of an intelligent bus--iBus. These are equipped with common rail direct-injection technology, which reduces noise and vibration and improves fuel combustion and performance. It also has safety features such as an anti-lock braking system and collision warning systems. Tata Motors presented the air-conditioned, low-entry Starbus le with features like electronic destination display and a smart card ticketing system.

Similarly sidelined were the advanced clean and efficient technologies in the making that can help India leapfrog. Exciting concepts of advanced technologies and zero-emission vehicles were on display--the fuel saving petrol hybrid car from Honda and diesel hybrids of Mahindra & Mahindra (m&m); a hydrogen fuelcell car from Honda; and battery-powered vehicles. m&m has also come up with its short distance three-wheeler e -Alfa with on- and off-board charging facilities.

There are green promises in the two-wheeler segment as well. Battery-powered two wheelers of Gujarat-based Electrotherm's Yobikes and Hero Ultra drew attention. Also, replacing the old carburettor there were models with electronic control units and electronic fuel injection and ignition systems.

Dark trends The car industry, however, remains aggressive about diesel. To counter the public campaign against diesel emissions, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers set up a special pavilion called 'Diesel City'.

Clearly, amidst all green cosmetics the corporate focus is definitely diesel. Nearly all auto companies, including Skoda, Tata Motors and m&m, showcased new models and variants of diesel cars and multi-utility vehicles. Even a diesel Nano is on the cards.

Common rail direct injection technologies were bandied about as a cure for all ills while there are still no signs of advanced after-treatment technologies like traps to control particulate matter emissions.

Whether advanced and high-end green technologies will have a chance to find a substantial market will depend on public policy. The low-cost syndrome must not undercut the market for the advanced technologies in the making that are needed to make the big transition in Indian cities. The market acceptance of advanced technologies like zero-emission vehicles and hybrids will require enabling fiscal policies. Or these will remain showpieces as cheap motorization takes over.

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