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With the government forming a committee to look into the proposal to form a new vehicles segment - quadricycles - that holds the potential to change the dynamics of low-cost city travel, auto companies are at loggerheads over the project.
Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto told Business Standard in a exclusive interview: "The committee, to my understanding, has been told that essentially we have to introduce quadricycles in India. But some car makers, especially of cheap cars, have been strongly resisting this idea."
Bajaj Auto's RE60, an ultra low-cost four-wheeler which it showcased at this year's Auto Expo in New Delhi, is the vehicle which could be recognised as a quadricycle' if the existing European regulation for the vehicle are applied in India, too.
"Initially, all manufacturers were unsure, but now I believe that many manufacturers like Mahindra, Eicher and Piaggio have come to acknowledge that there is a market for such a vehicle in India. But those who are predominantly cheap car makers are opposing the idea on the grounds that a quadricycle is unsafe compared to a car," said Bajaj.
A quadricycle is a light four-wheeler used personally as well as commercially. With specifications quite different from a modern day car, a quadricycle is an improved substitute for a three-wheeler, but substantially cheaper than a car.
For instance, like a three-wheeler passenger vehicle, the quadricycle has no doors and the maximum speed is 70 km per hour, according to European regulations. Although its Europe market is small, Indian manufacturers are pushing for its introduction here.
Presently, the government has appointed a committee to look into the feasibility of introducing such vehicles in India under the aegis of Ministry of Surface Transport. The National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project, headed by Nitin Gokarn, former joint secretary in the road transport and highways ministry, has been asked to submit a report on the proposal.
Ravi Chopra, chairman and managing director of Piaggio Vehicles, said, "We will see what emerges, like emission norms and other requirements then there will be a level playing field. The government cannot say that from tomorrow there will be quadricycles; there has to be a time period."
Today, a passenger three-wheeler costs about Rs 150,000, and a passenger four-wheeler costs about Rs 210,000; the price of a quadricycle would be somewhere in between, if it gets approved. Tata Nano, which is a full-fledged car, costs Rs 155,000 (ex-showroom, Mumbai).
Since a quadricycle is only an improvement over a three wheeler, manufacturers say that crash tests, which are mandatory for cars, are not required for it as most of the drive would be within the city. According to Bajaj and NATRiP executives, some manufacturers are raising the issue of the quadricycle being unsafe.
"My fundamental contention is that a quadricycle cannot be compared to a car. One should carefully consider that the quadricycle itself is a separate segment, which offers two-wheeler and three-wheeler intenders the opportunity to upgrade to something that is safer. When our industry revels in sales of a million two wheelers and 40,000 three wheelers each month, but balks at the prospect of quadricycles being sold, the logic beats me," added Bajaj.
"First and foremost, the quadricycle gives out about half the emission, which a small car gives out. That is why we have called the vehicle the RE60 because it gives out emission of only 60g CO2/km, whereas a typical small car today gives out 120g CO2/km. Secondly a small car will provide a mileage of 18-20kms/litre, while the quadricycle will give a mileage of 35km/litre. So, there is a perceptible advantage of the quadricycle over the car," said Bajaj.
According to a senior Piaggio executive, the auto industry is divided over the issue with one group saying we should follow the EU norms and the other insisting we should have a set of new rules for the segment, entailing enormous amount of time.
"The same industry that complains of an apparent policy paralysis in government now wants government to push back on a quadricycle policy. How can policy come first and the product later? Does policy shape innovation or does innovation shape policy? Is it that a babu sitting in Delhi would make a smart policy, which would then lead to innovation or is it the entrepreneur who comes up with innovation and that guides a well-meaning administrator to shape policy? I believe that at first it is innovation that comes from the entrepreneur be it of a Walkman or an iPhone," said Bajaj.
According to an NATRiP source, it will take at least one year for the report to be submitted. "If a four-wheeler has to go through a crash test, then there should be a crash test on quadricycles' also. Various companies are preparing their concepts. Separate rules have to be prepared for quadricycles as existing rules for cars cannot be applied."
The NATRiP report, once cleared by the Ministry of Surface Transport, should also be cleared by the law ministry and the Ministry of Environment and Forests.