The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s proposal to generate 100 smart cities has prompted commercial vehicle manufacturers to line up buses and vans of the likes that have never been seen in India. Expected to hit Indian roads soon are an articulated bus and two low-floor hybrid buses from Tata Motors Ltd, the electric bus Optare Versa from Ashok Leyland Ltd, and Toyota Motor Corp.’s 10-seater van HiAce. Articulated buses, also known as banana buses or bendy buses, have two single-deck compartments that are linked by a pivoting joint. Commonly used all over Europe, they allow operators to carry more passengers.
Tata Motors has received an order for 30 articulated buses from Hubli-Dharwad BRTS Co. Ltd and is also in talks with the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corp. (BMTC) for 30 hybrid buses and Navi Mumbai Municipal Transport for another 10 hybrid buses. These buses will be fitted with an electric motor which will automatically charge its battery while the bus moves about, thus doing away with the hassle of having to set up charging points at bus depots.
Its colleague Ashok Leyland is in talks with the Odisha government and BMTC for its Optare all-electric buses, which were introduced on the roads of London in July last year. Toyota, on the other hand, is targeting high-end fleet operators and embassies with its HiAce, which in effect may also take on Pune-based Force Motors Ltd’s Traveller. HiAce will be introduced in India by the middle of this year as completely built units, N. Raja, senior vice-president (sales and marketing), Toyota Kirloskar Motor Pvt. Ltd, said. Tata Motors is also working on an inter-city hybrid bus for smaller cities and towns.
To be sure, the support system for such vehicles will be the rapid transit system, which has not really been a success in India though more such corridors are expected to be built as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s smart cities plan. Vehicle manufacturers say they are also banking on the government making changes to the unified bus specification, so that a person can no longer buy a chassis from a manufacturer and get an outside vendor to build a body on it. “From a smart city perspective, we have to wait and see how it takes shape, but if you piece together the experience in the past in some other countries, the expectation is that standard of living will be better. So, the likelihood of that city expanding is higher,” said R. Ramakrishnan, senior vice-president (commercial) at Tata Motors’ commercial vehicle business unit.
Developing 100 smart cities was a part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto and finance minister Arun Jaitley allocated Rs.7,060 crore in the July budget to develop such cities. Smart cities aim to provide reliable utility services, sanitation, solid waste management, storm water drainage, energy efficiency, improved access to information, and a comfortable transport system. According to T. Venkataraman, senior vice-president (global buses), Ashok Leyland, a sound policy and its right implementation may entirely change the transport system in the country. “We can anticipate some things to happen and therefore start making some preparations in that direction,” Venkatraman said. “It is for us to be pro-active.” Smart cities are expected to be fertile grounds for modern, green buses. Ramakrishnan said that with expanding cities, all kinds of transport systems can coexist. From a vehicle perspective, trains or metros won’t take away business from buses.
His colleague and Tata Motors’ vice-president for defence and government business Vernon Noronha said that the huge difference in investments between a metro network and a mass transport system is likely to benefit bus makers. According to him, it takes Rs.400 crore to build a kilometre of metro track, compared with Rs.20 crore per km of a bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor. “BRT seems to be the best way out and our challenge is to give bus commuters an experience which is close to travelling in a metro coach. This essentially means upgrading the buses like a metro with low NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), wi-fi, air-conditioning, etc,” Noronha said. He was also confident that since smart cities will be built from scratch, the BRTS (bus rapid transit system) will have 80-foot-wide roads as against roads that are less than 40 feet wide in older cities like Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Delhi. However, the initial cost of acquiring hybrid buses could be a deterrent for an operator—their prices can be three times those of a normal bus. But Noronha said that after around four years the difference can be recovered on account of savings made on conventional fuels. “Centre’s electric and hybrid vehicle programme holds the key in this regard,” he added.
“Going forward, we expect orders of 10,000 buses from various state transport departments every year and even if 10% of them are for hybrid and electric vehicles, we will consider that as a good start.” Mint reported on 8 January that India may spend Rs.1,400 crore over the next two years on incentives and subsidies for makers and buyers of electric vehicles as part of an effort to have at least six million electric vehicles on the country’s roads by 2020. IRU’s and Busworld’s Smart Move campaign is of course very happy to see this kind of development in the world’s second biggest market of bus and coach.