Brijesh Kumar, 29, wants to “break away from the boxy, conventional way of car design.” So, the three-wheeler he designed is as Indian as it gets on the country’s roads—it looks like a cow.
Kumar, a student of MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology, Bangalore, and eight other students are presenting clay models of their designs at the Auto Expo, part of a competition whose theme is a “truly Indian vehicle.”
A model of the car designed by Brijesh Kumar displayed at the 9th Auto Expo in New Delhi
“I would like to design automobiles that are environment- friendly and use new materials,” says Kumar, who sees the rapidly growing auto sector in the country—International companies such as Renault SA and General Motors Corp. are setting up design centres in the country—through the eyes of a potential employee.
Kumar may be onto a good concept, though he is still in the early stages of his design.
His career ambitions coincide with a turn of events that has forced global car makers to look at India for innovative automobile products, a process that has intensified since last week when Tata Motors Ltd unveiled the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car.
Even though cars such as the Mahindra Scorpio and the Tata Nano have been totally developed and engineered in India, they have sourced design and styling inputs from Europe.
So, while the first Indian car to be 100% designed and made in India is some time away, enthusiasts such as Kumar could make all the difference in a sector which has grown at double-digit rates in the past five years. While some manufacturers have set up fledgling design centres in the country, these are typically used to make cosmetic changes to existing models and interiors.
“We are looking to become a centre of expertise for the whole company for interiors,” says Shiela Sarvar, who heads General Motors’ design centre in Bangalore. But the company is also developing “the ability to design vehicles for India because Indian customers are unique,” she adds.
General Motors or GM, which has an engineering centre that employs 800 people in India, has set up a vehicle design centre at Bangalore with 60 designers.
The cost of developing an automobile can go up to $1 billion (Rs3,930 crore) in Western countries while in India, it costs only a fifth to do so. Still, since styling, or the looks of a car, is the first thing that attracts consumers, companies go to reputed centres of design rather than risk Indian ones.
“It takes 25 years to establish oneself in this field,” says Dilip Chhabria, a former GM designer who set up an independent design studio in Pune in the early 1990s, and is one of the early birds in automotive design. While he wouldn’t say what the revenues of his company were, he admitted that 60% of his earnings came from independent customers who wanted to modify the looks of their cars. The rest comes from providing original designs to auto makers.
“I feel Indians have the aptitude for styling, but lack the confidence,” says Pawan Goenka, president (automotive) of Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, India’s largest utility vehicle maker. Goenka, who spearheaded the development of the Scorpio, says the company had to take styling inputs from abroad for the vehicle, but that it would be capable of fully styling a vehicle in-house by the turn of the decade. This is the same deadline which Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, the country’s largest car maker, has set for its design and engineering team too.
The initial flow of companies setting up design centres has led to as many as 15 institutes introducing courses in automotive or transportation design in the country.
Auto design is also getting more classroom space in design centres that have traditionally focused on other industries.
The National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, launched a postgraduate course of two-and-a-half years’ duration in transportation and automobile design in 2006. MIT, Pune, and IIT Madras also have programmes on automobile engineering, but the industry says that finding design manpower is still a problem because between the institutes, only about 300 designers graduate every year.
“It’s a turning point in the Indian auto industry,” says Pradyumna Vyas, mentor, transportation and automobile design, and head, education, NID. “The role of design, more than ever, in the Indian auto industry is gaining increasing importance if the ongoing auto show is any indication of the shape of things to come. ” NID has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Italian design houses and schools such as Pininfarina SpA and Domus Academy where their students go on exchange programmes.
“All...are fighting for the same skills,” says Sarvar. The industry is still nascent and the available manpower “needs exposure and experience,” she adds.
While that’s something GM and Sarvar are trying to build up, the speed at which the country’s schools scale up design courses and the willingness of companies to take a gamble on a product designed in-house may decide when the truly Indian vehicle will hit the roads.
Rajeshwari Sharma contributed to this story.