Not Maruti or Hyundai, India’s EVs battle will be Tata vs. Mahindra

Sunny Sen February 9, 2018 6 min

Story Highlights

  • Homegrown automakers Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra have had electric vehicles ambitions dating back seven years and their efforts are fructifying now
  • Both companies have flexible EV platforms in place. Tata Motors's platform can turn out both EV and internal combustion vehicles; M&M's is modular and will produce multiple modules for use in its different vehicles
  • Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai India, and other foreign-owned automakers are just getting into the EV act — likely worried about the huge price differential between IC vehicles and EVs

The fight to get ahead in the electric vehicles race in India will intensify this year. At the centre of the battle will be homegrown automakers Tata Motors and Mahindra & Mahindra, not market leaders Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai India, both units of eponymous foreign parents.

The EV trajectory in India, the world’s fourth-largest market by number of cars sold, could have implications for the future global prospects of the two Indian companies — success here in terms of product-market fit could give their international ambitions a boost as the world pivots towards EVs.

Both Tata Motors and M&M have developed EV platforms over the last five-six years and have EVs planned for launch in the coming years, starting 2018, brushing aside concerns that competitors voice about the price differential with internal combustion engines and a virtually absent charging infrastructure that is key to widespread adoption of the eco-friendly vehicles.

While Tata Motors has launched two new platforms Alpha Arc and Omega Arc, which will have both internal combustion (petrol or diesel fired) and electric versions. “We can effectively cover all the important market segments in the different top heads – leveraging investments in the architecture and all the relevant subsegments with attractive product offering,” said Guenter Butschek, CEO and managing director at Tata Motors.

The focus of Guenter Butschek, CEO and managing director at Tata Motors is more on the mobility solution

M&M, too, has launched a new platform – a new EV drivetrain called MESMA, short for Mahindra Electric Scalable Modular Architecture – that is scalable and is modular in nature, which allows it to have multiple products. “We can get vehicles of different length, sizes and segments… It will also allow us to produce high-performance electric vehicles,” said Mahesh Babu, CEO of Mahindra Electric, M&M’s EV subsidiary.

Streets ahead

A platform, in automotive industry parlance, refers to a set of design, engineering, and manufacturing – it even covers components – practices that helps amortise costs over a number of outwardly distinct vehicle models appealing to different market segments. Platforms are common among automakers.

Butschek and Babu spoke to FactorDaily at Auto Expo 2018, the biennial marquee event of the automobile industry in India.

Larger carmakers Maruti and Hyundai are lagging M&M and Tata Motors. Maruti, for example, will just start working on an EV platform and its vehicles will be out only in 2020. “In a sense, we are trying to challenge ourselves as the time has come to change the game. Hence, we have to review (our strategy) and start again from zero,” Kenichi Ayukawa, managing director of Maruti Suzuki told Mint newspaper.

Hyundai unveiled the EV version of its i20 hatchback at the Auto Expo, starting at Rs 5.34 lakh and going up to Rs 9.15 lakh. It is slated for launch next year.

Other carmakers have small, fragmented shares of the Indian market.

“Maruti and Hyundai already have large bases to cover in IC engines… Others are looking at how to outsmart the big two,” said Jaspal Singh, partner at Valoriser Consultation, an advisory firm. “The situation in EVs is much like what happened with Nokia. Nokia lived in denial that the smartphone revolution was around the corner.”

Solution, not product

In India, electric mobility is considered to be a thing of the future, shoots of which are growing. But, already, Tata Motors and M&M look at EVs differently.

“You are old-fashioned,” Butschek told this reporter when asked about Tata Motors’s planned EV products.

There are four parts to Tata Motors’s future of mobility strategy: autonomous, electric, connected, and shared. To begin with, it wants to solve a city’s transportation problem – all the way from individual transport to mass rapid transport and from long-haul transport to doorstep distribution in the case of ecommerce, said Butschek.

One way to handle the situation to offer – build, operate and maintain – its cars and buses as a service and charge state governments on a per-km basis. The bids of two of the 11 smart cities to put on roads electric buses as a service have already closed.

Tata has done something similar years ago in Delhi. It ran the entire fleet management and maintenance of 3,500 DTC buses; the operations, however, were still with the state transport unit.

Even in taxis, this will be the way ahead. “It is not make ‘just a car’ and it’s not only to make ‘a better product’. It is about providing a mobility solution of product, infrastructure… Our products are going to be fit for future requirements,” said Butschek.

Platform play

In electric personal mobility, Mahindra Electric has a different strategy.

The MESMA electric platform allows the company scale and flexibility with modular models that can, in turn, be custom designed to build a large number electric products.

Babu said that the company is looking at multiple cars to be manufactured at the same time with capacities from 50 kilowatt-hour to 150 kWh. The 50 kWh variant will be used in the entry A-segment of cars and the 150 kWh one for its mini-SUV. Last month, FactorDaily had reported that M&M wants to develop EV variants for all its passenger vehicle models.

Mahindra group chairman Anand Mahindra’s focus on electric vehicles is over seven years old

M&M will have hatchbacks, compact sedans, sedans and mini-SUVs on the MESMA platform. The performance of these cars will be higher: a speed of up to 150 kmph for the 50 kWh capacity and up to 200 kmph for the 150 kWh capacity.

The cars will reach a speed of zero to 60 kmph in less than five seconds, Babu said. “Some of them will be objects of desire and then there will be objects of mobility,” Babu said. “In the next five years, almost 10% of our volumes might come from EVs.”

A battery capacity of 150kWh is almost double that of Tesla Motors’s Model 3 series of cars.

No Nano EV

Tata Motors has a similar strategy. Butschek said that the Alpha Arc will cater to vehicles between 3.7-4.3 metres, which includes hatchbacks to mini-SUVs. And the Omega Arc will be for vehicles about 4.3 metres, essentially targeting the commercial vehicles segment.

“All the new products will get a battery operated powertrain… Alpha H5X and the Omega 45X both will be on the road in the next 15-18 months,” said Butschek.

Tata Motors wants to offer – build, operate and maintain – its cars and buses as a service and charge state governments on a per-km basis

Meanwhile, Nano’s electric variant will be called Neo, which will have a powertrain and electric motor developed by Coimbatore-based Jayem Automotives. Tata Motors and Jayem Automotives created a joint venture in March 2017. “(We didn’t do it) because we just introduced the Alpha. There is significant room to play on the lower-sized vehicles were we not concluded how we will play – whether it will be an upgrade of the Nano, or the successor of the Nano, or is it going to be different concept… that’s the discussions that are going on,” explained the CEO.

Tata Motors has not decided the price of the EVs for the India market. Butschek said that the pricing and strategy for the EV hatchback and entry level market “has to be spot on” to succeed.


Graphic by: Rajesh Subramanian

Updated at 11.40am on February 9, 2018 to add the 'India EV sales may beat that in the US two decades from now' graphic.

Updated at 3.35 PM on 9 February 2018: An earlier version of the story incorrectly said that Tata Motors is working with General Motors to develop its electric variant. It should have been Jayem Automotives with whom Tata Motors has formed a joint venture.

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