Don_HillebrandFrom being confined to an American, European and Japanese one, the auto industry has transformed itself into a global industry. India has become a launching pad for many global companies. And the century old SAE International, USA, has significantly contributed to this change. During a recent visit to India, Dr Don Hillebrand, spoke to T Murrali on the evolution of the industry and various other issues. Edited excerpts:

Q: Can you tell us what is SAE’s contribution to the transformation happening in the automotive world?
DH: Internationally, it is all linked together. USA, Europe and Japan are all changing. Earlier SAE had created affiliated organisations in the countries that were shifting, especially the BRIC countries, implementing new technologies. For example, the Brazilian market is changing really fast; they are designing aircraft and making their own cars. Korea is a major manufacturer – it does not just build cars, instead it innovates. India is slightly behind but it is doing exactly the same thing. As part of my current visit, I had an opportunity to see Ashok Leyland’s research facility. They are designing next generation vehicles and marketing them globally. SAE helps to link these countries together to make sure they enter the world of automotive engineering as equal partners. SAE, 20 years ago, saw to it that they were all linked together. Now that these markets are developing, they are going to grow as large as the US and Europe, producing their own vehicles but it is going to be integrated with other markets as well to become one big, self-sustaining power.

Q: What is the next step for India, Brazil and Korea?
DH: That’s a good question. SAE’s role is to sustain the communication and mobility between the groups where the international and regional community can benefit from one another. SAE will support the individual engineers, the individual companies and company members to make sure they have the best of what is going on. Ultimately, we hope to develop uniform SAE standards that are globally recognised across the world with interconnected interoperable type systems.

“The biggest strengths is that India produces the best engineers in the world.”

Q: How do you see the drop in growth in India over the last seven quarters?
DH: Frankly, I am not an expert on India but I think this is only a temporary setback. We cannot go forward all the time. In the US, we would have been thrilled to have the kind of growth that you call a slowdown. It is just a natural cycle of business. India is moving up because there is so much development that is happening. With the development of people and infrastructure, the increase in wages and wealth, growth is inevitable.

Q: A few global leaders think of India as a hub for frugal engineering and also for small vehicles. What according to you are India’s strengths and weaknesses? How can India build on its strengths, for the future?
DH: One of the biggest strengths is that India produces the best engineers in the world. In the case of Argonne National Laboratory in the US where I work, a large proportion of the engineers are from India. Previously India exported them to the US because that was the place they would go to, to do exciting work. What is interesting now is that the senior people that I have met have all spent 20 years in the US and now they have come home. This is the biggest strength.

Coming to weaknesses, the infrastructure is the biggest disadvantage and there are two aspects to that. Firstly, it is poorly put together and secondly, there are layers and layers of rules that keep things from happening. It is not just physical problems but mental, emotional and spiritual ones too. Once these are pushed through, then development will happen the way it has to happen. To build for the future I think it is necessary to use the engineering capabilities coupled with a growing market. I personally feel that some leaders will have to come up through governmental policies to take care of infrastructure issues and couple engineering expertise to the growing market with proper infrastructure. Then advances can be made very, very quickly. Weaknesses, I think, are mostly in the mind.

Q: Sustainable mobility is not country specific, it has not been taken up by the emerging economies as expected. Can SAE develop standards that could offset the imbalance between the developed and the emerging nations?
DH: Sustainability is different things to different regions of the world based on how advanced they are and how much infrastructure they have built. Sustainability in Europe is that banana peels are not thrown but recycled. In other places, high value products are disposed off but it is ensured that the high value is not lost like in the case of cardboards, shipping containers etc. So a single standard is hard to do but they could all be linked together to form a common framework to ensure that ultimately they are all going to the same place, in the same direction.

Q: What is the level of participation from India in SAE for developing standards to the world?
DH: Well, I think, of the 18 board members, several of them are from India. The numbers go up and down over the years but the connection is very tight.

Q: SAE through its magazines help component manufacturers exhibit their products and create awareness with the vehicle manufacturers globally. Will that continue in India?
DH: We can certainly continue that in India as we have just launched a new magazine. This is a step forward for doing it.

Q: As an individual, you are in the list of the most influential hundred persons in the industry. What is your view on electric vehicles?
DH: My personal view is that partial electrification is inevitable. The path we take to get there will be slow, slower than what people think. A slow build-up of plug-in hybrids, a lot of battery cars with the required infrastructure built up slowly so that it is less expensive. We are looking at electrification over a 25-year perspective and not short term.

“For EVs, I think, partial electrification is inevitable. The path we take to get there will be slow, slower than what people think.”

Q: What are the significant challenges ahead?
DH: One is people’s mindset, learning how to use electric vehicles correctly. The education component here is very important. The second is the cost related to electrification; it has got to be cheaper. Government intervention is a must, otherwise things will not move as it should.

Q: What about hybrids?
DH: A mature technology like hybrids will have an effective role in a free society, to drive down costs to make it profitable. Costs will continue to come down. Power electronics get better by ten percent a year, batteries improve by five percent a year proving that hybrid vehicles are only going to get better, which makes it a really effective technology. ACI

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