Exclusive Interview with Dr. V. Sumantran, Chairman of Celeris Technologies
Guest Profile: Dr. Sumantran is Chairman of Celeris Technologies, a strategic advisory engaged in the domains of mobility, aerospace, defence and technologies. He is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He is an advisor to several leading Fortune 100 organizations in autos, industrial equipment and aerospace. Until recently, Dr. Sumantran served as Executive Vice-Chairman of Hinduja Automotive, UK, the auto and manufacturing sector holding company of the Hinduja Group as well as Vice Chairman of Ashok Leyland, India’s 2nd largest Commercial Vehicle Manufacturer. For their Joint Ventures, he was the Chairman of Ashok Leyland Nissan Ltd., Chairman of Ashok Leyland John Deere Ltd., and Chairman of Ashok Leyland Defence Systems Ltd. Previously, he was the chief executive of TATA Motors’ Car business, during their formative years (2001-2005), reporting to Mr. Ratan Tata. He was also the Board member responsible for company-wide product development, and oversaw the concept and development of their landmark projects including the Tata Nano and the Tata Ace Prior to joining TATAs, Dr. Sumantran had a 16-year career with General Motors in the R&D Centre in Detroit and subsequently served on deputation in Europe as Director, Advanced Engineering, SAAB Automobile AB and oversaw the platform engineering of the last generation SAAB 93 and 95. During this period he also simultaneously held the positions of “Single Voice” for R&D and Advanced Engineering undertaken by the GM-FIAT Alliance in Europe and also Chief Engineer- Premium Platform (that resulted in the Alfa Romeo 159). The auto industry in India has made enormous progress in the past two years. The statistics suggest that Hyundai, Maruti and Tata Motors are top three automakers in the market. Before the opening of the Forum, we interviewed Dr. V. Sumantran, Chairman of Celeris Technologies, Former CEO of Car Business, Tata Motors, and asked him to share with us his perspectives on the development of India and global automotive Industry.
Mobile World: As we know from your background, you served in many Indian automobile enterprises and play a positive role in Indian automotive industry development. What is your most memorable experience and why?
Dr. V. Sumantran: The most memorable experience was leading the Tata Nano project at its planning and development and phases. This was an Indian effort to create a new global-benchmark product as well as deliver a socially relevant solution for India’s population. Directly from the unveiling at the Indian Auto Expo, I flew to California to deliver a talk at the famous Art Center College of Design, the training ground of most famous auto designers. Every one there wanted to know about the Tata Nano and its design. This Indian product suddenly became a point of focus at the world’s foremost design school for the world’s leading auto designers including some like Gordon Murray who went on to do new designs inspired by the Tata Nano.
Mobile World: Do you have a plan to cooperate with Chinese Auto manufactures in the near future? If so, can we know the details?
Dr. V. Sumantran: During the past 10 years, I have made several trips to China looking to forge new relations across the spectrum of cars, light trucks and powertrain technologies we had developed. At least 3 of these were with specific project ideas. Most of these are confidential and I am not at liberty to speak about them now. I am hopeful that there will be some opportunities that we can harvest to mutual benefit in the years to come.
Mobile World: You are absolutely an authority in automotive industry. Which new technology do you wish to be applied in auto manufacturing? Why?
Dr. V. Sumantran: A major challenge today is to lower cost of investment in manufacturing even as our customers demand shorter product life-cycles, more variety and more customisation. To achieve this I see three major areas of innovation: (a) lower cost more adaptable and human-friendly robots (b) new production processes including additive manufacturing, also commonly referred to as 3-D printing, and (c) digitization of the supply chain and manufacturing process for better control, optimization, and analytics.
Mobile World: What’s the biggest difficulty for current automotive technology? How to solve it?
Dr. V. Sumantran: Customers expect product- and technology-obsolescence comparable to the smart-phone industry and yet we must recognize that the Mercedes S-Class car has 200 million lines of software code, comparable to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Auto technology is being challenged to move at smart-phone speed and yet provide reliable and safe operation for a wide range of users and operating conditions. At the same time, we must double our energy efficiency and halve our emissions to meet new regulations. In the past, the auto industry has always met such challenges, even as we have complained about them. The future sure looks very interesting. This can only be solved by clear definition of policy by governments, commitment and focus of R&D resources and wherever possible by cooperation among the industry.
Mobile World: What program is your most interested in, regarding to automotive technology? Are there any new study results can be shared?
Dr. V. Sumantran: I believe we will see greater emphasis on mobility and less on vehicles. As we do this, we will leverage multi-modal transportation more efficiently and achieve another quantum of improvement in CO2 reduction. Last week, while visiting Washington DC, I drove my car to one meeting in a suburb, used the Metro for the second meeting, hopped on an Uber taxi to reach the third appointment and finally collected my car for the return to my hotel. This achieved the best optimization for my time and my effort/stress. I see a huge revolution, enabled by modern technology – the so-called internet-of-things. Yet cities and administrations are only now beginning to notice and react to these changes. I also foresee many revolutions emerging from Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) as well as Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communications. The car ahead communicates to the car behind it and both communicate with the traffic signal ahead. Already technologies like ESP and EBD have dramatically reduced accidents, and this is visible to automakers who sell far fewer body replacement parts. The future with V2V and V2I can provide a next horizon for safety.
Mobile World: Both China and India are big auto markets. What’s your opinion on the two big auto markets? What are the similarities and differences? What’s the future for them?
Dr. V. Sumantran: The Chinese industry has grown to be the largest in the world in terms of numbers. This is backed by many of its large manufacturers having reached global scale and rapidly catching up with technology. The Chinese industry builds capacity and infrastructure and allows demand to catch up. I believe they are reaching a state of over-capacity for many reasons. In India, limited capital resources force a very different path. Here capital efficiency is very important and hence capacity (of production and infrastructure) lags demand. This also breeds innovation in products and manufacturing as we have seen with examples like the Tata Nano and the Bajaj and TVS motor-cycles. Yet Indian car and light truck manufacturers are still sub-scale.
Mobile World: Celeris Technologies engaged in the domains of mobility, aerospace, defense and technologies. Is there any relation between those areas and automotive technology?
Dr. V. Sumantran: For example, the aerospace and auto sectors have often exchanged ideas and technologies. BMW’s i3 using carbon-fibre structure benefits from experience in the aerospace sector while supply chain digitization and optimization, used widely in the auto sector, is changing practices in the aerospace industry. As we venture into the realm of the internet-of-things, we will see more sharing of technology and innovation. The same technology used for software integrity and security in Airbus is also relevant for GE Medical (for wearable sensors for patients) as well as for Vehicle-to-Vehicle communications.
Mobile World: From working on automotive R&D to providing technical support for automobile enterprises, you have made great contribution to automotive technology development. Can you share with us which technological study result are you most proud of?
Dr. V. Sumantran: I have been very proud of our contributions globally to frugal innovations. This means creating a Tata Nano for $2500. This means that a Mars orbit payload may be launched successfully by India’s ISRO, first-launch OK, at less than 10% of the cost of the NASA Mars orbiter. These frugal innovations are not made with low technology. Rather they are made with the best selection of state-of-the-art appropriate technologies. Globally admired auto industry leaders like Carlos Ghosn have recognized these contributions.
-Published on Pages#38-39, July-2015 edition of MOBILE WORLD Magazine