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M&M goes on a eco-drive for market share


R.Y. Narayanan

COIMBATORE, April 5

THE Mahindra & Mahindra group, a major player in the light commercial vehicle (LCV), multi-utility vehicle (MUV) and farm sector (tractors) segments has hit the eco trail and making a major foray into tapping solar energy and producing battery powered th ree wheelers.

While its three-wheeler model Mahindra Bijlee is expected to hit the roads in the coming weeks, the M&M group will finalise its tie-ups for establishing stand alone power plants by harnessing solar energy in the next few months, according to Mr Soami Sar an, President, Mahindra Alternative Technologies Ltd (MATL), Mumbai.

Speaking to Business Line here today, he said during August last year, the M&M group decided that it should look at the opportunity provided by alternative technologies. It decided not to limit its focus to the automobile sector alone but look for enviro nment-friendly technologies in other spheres too and an organisation -- MATL -- was born.

He said this was an umbrella company to hold new initiatives of the M&M group in the area of alternative technologies, alternative energy sources. Mahindra Eco Mobiles Ltd (MEML), an arm of MATL, is now gearing up to manufacture eco-friendly three-wheele rs.

He said MATL will be entering into tapping solar energy and fuel cell business. The former would result in solar products, which may also lead to solar hybrid stand-alone power stations. Fuel cell for automobiles may come in 2008/2009 but it may come for power generation by next year. This would be environment-friendly, small power generation units.

While not disclosing the details of any tie-up for this purpose, he said it may have a tie-up with local companies. Also, foreign institutions have shown interest in working together. The details of the tie-ups, the capacity of the power generation units to be established, the marketing etc were expected to be finalised in the next few months, he added.

Mr Soami Saran, responding to a question on whether M&M group was looking at alternative technology as a major revenue generating activity, said India had a much greater potential for solar energy than the West and it could light-up small cluster of home s/small villages and they were not grid dependent. The group sensed huge business opportunity in these alternative technologies.

Referring to the battery powered three-wheelers, he said though CNG was one of the less polluting fuel, as a long-term goal they looked for really non-polluting alternatives and hit upon fuel cells and hybrids and electric technology.

In this exercise, Mr B. Jayachandran, Chairman, Jayem Automotives Ltd, Coimbatore, a joint venture company of M&M, gave guidance, he said. While electric technology would have range limitations, fuel cell technology would not have this drawback.

Mr Soami Saran, Chairman of MEML, said the company had conducted pilot runs of these vehicles in Delhi and Mumbai. He said people have found the electric powered three-wheelers very good and comfortable vehicles. These had zero emission and there was har dly any noise. He was sure that as a concept, it would be accepted very well.

He said the company had approached the Centre for certain fiscal reliefs such as excise holiday while States could grant road tax and sales tax waivers. Some of the States have responded positively to these requests, he added.

About the slotting of the Mahindra Bijlee in the automobile sector, he said the 10-seater vehicle was viewed as a point-to-point taxi. The company had discussed the issue with Mr Sharad Rao, leader of the Mumbai auto union, who had sought certain clarifi cations and responded positively to the idea.

He said the battery-operated Mahindra Bijlee could run for 80-88 km before recharging the battery. The company was looking at the issue of establishing a chain of battery recharging outlets in Mumbai. Charging stations as stand-alone business looked econ omical and profitable.

Mr M.V. Nagabhushan, General Manager, MEML, said about 55 per cent of the cost of the vehicle was accounted for by imported components, mainly battery, motor and speed controller. If these three products could be produced locally, the cost of the vehicle could be brought down significantly.

Mr Soami Saran said the commercial production of the vehicles was expected to start at its Coimbatore unit by the month-end or in early May. MEML was planning to produce around 1,500-2,000 vehicles in the first year. There would be two models-one for dom estic market and another for exports and there would be variations in terms of looks, comforts, frills etc.

While the Indian model would sport a price tag of around Rs 3.10 lakh, the price for the export model was yet to be firmed up. The product would be first introduced in Delhi, Agra and Mumbai before being launched in other markets.

He expected the fuel cell vehicles may be ready by 2008-2010. It required about five years of experimentation and trials. The experimentation may begin in a year or two. MEML would improve upon the present model also.

When asked whether MEML would restrict itself to three-wheelers or may enter the four-wheeler segment also, he remarked ``we may move to four wheeler'', but the first priority was the three-wheeler sector which provided the largest market and one of the most polluting at present.

Pic.: The battery powered three-wheeler, Mahindra Bijlee, which is to be launched shortly.

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