'We need low-carbon technologies in all cars'
Nick Fell, who took over as director and head of TMETC in 2010, has 35 years of experience in the automotive sector, a wealth of engineering knowledge, and a sharp understanding of how the future could shape up for the industry. A chartered engineer and a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Mr Fell joined TMETC in 2006 as vice president of engineering. Previous to that, he worked for 19 years at Land Rover, progressing from chassis engineering to the leadership of several product programmes, including the Land Rover Discovery Series 2.
What is TMETC’s key contribution, in general, to automobile innovation and engineering?
TMETC has worked across many automobile engineering disciplines, but a common theme in our work has been reduction in fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions in general, and electrification in particular.
We’ve built on our original development of a state-of-the-art electric drive line for the Tata Indica Vista to maintain cutting-edge capability in electric and hybrid systems. In collaboration with our Indian colleagues, we are commissioning a battery assembly pilot line in Pune, which gives Tata Motors an in-house source for this commodity.
We also contributed to Tata Motors’ product development processes with tools and techniques such as craftsmanship, circuit-based electrical design, photometric simulation of lighting systems and aero-thermal simulation.
How has TMETC helped with Tata Motors’ recent product innovation and development, especially in the context of its HorizoNext strategy?
Since its early days, TMETC has been responsible for overseeing Tata Motors’ advanced engineering project portfolio and the delivery of those executed in Europe.
Our location places us at the global heart of low-carbon R&D and enables us to collaborate with industrial and academic partners, often with grant support from the United Kingdom government. We took the initiative to understand the characteristics of international benchmarks for innovation and piloted their adoption on behalf of Tata Motors.
The design studios at TMETC have been central to the delivery of the DesigNext pillar of HorizoNext and our infotainment experts are complementing the capabilities of the Indian team on second-generation systems, which underpin the future of ConnectNext. TMETC’s chassis and noise, vibration and hardness specialists provide key inputs for DriveNext.
What are the projects being developed at TMETC?
TMETC adds most value in the early stages of product development, from pre-programme R&D and new product concept development to programme approval. In these roles we are an integral part of Tata Motors’ global product engineering capacity.
We had the privilege of hosting the multinational team that developed the common advanced modular platform for Tata Motors’ future generation of A and B sector passenger cars. The first car in this new family has moved into the manufacturing phase in India, and work has begun in our United Kingdom studios on subsequent derivatives.
With automobile technology advancing by leaps and bounds, what form and function do you see in future vehicles?
First, we face the generational challenge of reducing energy consumption for conventional and alternatively fuelled vehicles. Until recently, internal combustion was the universal solution for road vehicles.
Rather than a single solution, the future will see diversity in optimum powertrains that will vary according to duty cycle, vehicle type and country of operation. These will range from improved internal combustion engines, through degrees of electrical and mechanical hybridisation, to pure electric vehicles and, perhaps eventually, hydrogen fuel cells. Common themes across these types will be vehicle mass reduction to cut energy demand, sophisticated transmissions to blend power sources, and the need to cut the costs of these technologies and localise them, especially for markets like India.
Second, the industry is talking about autonomous vehicles. Collaborative research projects on this technology are underway. The necessary core technologies are available, surprisingly, and relatively affordable. The challenges are in their integration and, of course, the legislative environment. Before full autonomy, we need to offer customers advanced driver assistance systems that are helpful in Indian conditions. Some of those developed for mature markets simply won’t work for us.
Once we have near-autonomous systems that prevent collisions, why carry the weight and cost of structures and restraints that protect in a crash? Ultimately, you could envisage an ultra-light vehicle with a substantially electrified drive line, with seating that allows its passengers to face one another. You don’t need to face forward if you’re not driving.
How involved is TMETC in affordable and sustainable mobility solutions?
To create affordable solutions we must ensure that the cost of developing such technologies is low. To have commercial merit, our customers must regard the technologies as valuable and affordable. Localisation is crucial to this; we must utilise our own manufacturing capabilities as well as those of our supply partners.
‘Sustainable’ has a business and an environmental sense. From a business perspective, to paraphrase our Tata Motors mission, we must keep attracting existing and new customers by providing the best vehicles and exciting them. From an environmental perspective, very little is gained by low-carbon technologies in a handful of top-end cars — we need them in every vehicle we make.
What will TMETC’s role be in the upcoming National Automotive Innovation Centre (NAIC)? What does this mean for the automotive industry in general and for Tata Motors and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR)?
NAIC is a joint effort by the University of Warwick [UoW], JLR and TMETC to set up an institution that fosters collaboration to create and develop innovative vehicle technologies. It will be housed in a 30,000-square metre signature building on the UoW campus.
NAIC is a unique opportunity to provide co-location of design and engineering teams in world-class facilities for the research and concept development of Tata vehicles. The centre is conceived as a Tata Motors strategic facility that maximises collaborative R&D with JLR, UoW and our suppliers. It will also help us attract, develop and retain talented people, and, of course, provide a long-term home for TMETC.
TMETC also takes on projects for non-Tata carmakers. Can you tell us something about this?
Since its founding TMETC has had a mandate to do projects for third parties, and we have executed work for non-competing manufacturers as well as for JLR. Having said that, external projects will always be a minority in our portfolio. Our primary motivation for doing them is to expose our teams to others’ best practices and technologies.
What part do you see TMETC playing in the manufacturing and R&D sectors in the United Kingdom?
TMETC contributes significantly to the British automobile sector. We are on the influential Industry Automotive Council and are active in policy making and the technical events of institutions such as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and International Federation of Automotive Engineering societies. Members of our staff will deliver some of the syllabi of the Warwick Manufacturing Group Academy for Young Engineers. This is an initiative to support the automotive engineering profession as a whole.
How do you see TMETC evolving over the next decade?
We will develop and boost, in close collaboration with our Indian colleagues, our contribution to the early stages of product development of Tata products. Besides our passenger car-related work, we aim to do more in the commercial vehicles space.
We will strengthen our third-party businesses on NAIC occupancy, keeping our people fresh and helping the business grow. With the huge market for and legislative pressure on better fuel efficiency and emission reduction, we will increase our powertrain research, leveraging our investment in NAIC. And we will take advantage of our geography and skills base by increasing our advanced engineering work through collaborative partnerships and with the support of the United Kingdom government.