The game is changing

Written by Murad Ali Baig | Updated: Nov 1 2009, 03:06am hrs
If car sales are any indicator of economic growth, India seems to be destined to have a good year. Car and SUV sales during first five months of the year are up 12% while two wheelers are up by 18%. At this rate we should end the year with sales of 1.8 million cars and nearly 9 million 2-wheelers. This growth reflects the rapid growth in Indias consumer purchasing power despite the slow growth in agriculture and mining. But there are many whines behind the shine because the growth is putting huge pressure on the infrastructure. The Indian roads can no longer cope with roughly 60 million two wheelers, 12 million cars and 6 million trucks and buses. Better highways are being built but the existing city roads are a nightmare. Planners and politicians have to understand that it is not only the poor who have the votes but that the roughly 200 million unhappy people using motorised transport every day will soon become a huge political factor. Our cars are of the 21st century but our traffic management remains in the age of the bullock cart.

Better public transport is good but people want personal transport with air-conditioning, power steering, music systems and better features. With liberal financing many people are willing to pay for comfort and prestige as well. All new cars are now very reliable and new engines are fuel efficient. The new diesel engines with common rail offer such good performance and fuel economics that they would be in demand even if the price of diesel were higher. Electronic micro motors, sensors and mini computers now govern almost every function in the engine, brakes and suspensions. There may be as many chips in a modern car as in a packet of wafers. Young customers are also attracted to space age designs that shock their elders so new models must have high end music systems and sockets for all their electronic gizmos.

People need better suspensions as well as superior tyres because the tyres do most of the work on a road. High performance and high speeds also require expensive safety features. All modern cars must meet high standards of passive and active safety. Passive safety concerns a cars ability to protect occupants in crashes while active safety involves the improvements to the steering, handling and braking that make driving safer.

All modern engines have to meet increasing strict pollution laws with turbochargers, multiple spark plugs and variable valves as well as catalytic converters for cleaning of the exhaust gases. But auto technologies are looking further afield with electric, hybrids pure hydrogen and other clean fuels. The auto industry is also seriously looking at the new fuel cell technology where petrol or methanol is directly converted into electricity. In the meantime the use of environment friendly alternative fuels is also being seriously utilised. Some countries like India have gone for compressed natural gas (CNG) but as this is not practical in places far from gas pipelines, LPG has been much more successful worldwide and presently drives over 12 million cars.

Gasohol using ethanol as in alcohol mixed with petrol has been a huge success in Brazil but this is basically uses ethanol from cane instead of fossil fuels. It gives money to farmers. Biofuels are extracts from plants like Jatropha that can replace diesel.

The auto industry is the worlds largest manufacturing industry making over 70 million cars, 15 million two wheelers and 15 million commercial vehicles per year. In every country it is a big engine for employment and economic growth.

The author is automotive analyst