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Students’ prototype cars gain traction in India

Students’ prototype cars gain traction in India
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First Published: Sat, Jun 20 2009. 12 30 AM IST

The Garuda car designed and built by students at RV College of Engineering, Bangalore. Hemant Mishra / Mint
The Garuda car designed and built by students at RV College of Engineering, Bangalore. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Updated: Mon, Jun 22 2009. 09 06 PM IST
Bangalore:Bharat Sharma, 22, visited a junkyard in March, picked up a 68cc engine, tuned it, fitted in an electronic control unit, built a chassis and gave it a lightweight, transparent, polycarbonate body to make India’s most fuel-efficient car. All in four months.
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Over the past year, this final-year student of mechanical engineering at RV College of Engineering, Bangalore, and his 10-member team have built three prototypes. The latest, christened Project Garuda 3, will take part in the Shell Eco-marathon at Northamptonshire in the UK later this month. The contest is a test of fuel efficiency, safety and speed in cars built by students.
Having spent Rs12 lakh on it, Sharma hopes the car, weighing just 22kg, will clock upwards of 400km to a litre of petrol at the Rockingham Motor Speedway.
The Garuda car designed and built by students at RV College of Engineering, Bangalore. Hemant Mishra / Mint
RV College has a tradition of designing cars. Since 2003, it has built 10 prototypes. Half the cars lie idle and the rest are modified for future competitions. Sharma says he has benefited from his alma mater. “The cars serve as a platform for future experiments. If it weren’t for the first car, how would I have built the third?” he asks.
Over the past decade, an increasing number of engineering colleges—from the premier Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to the lesser-known MM College of Engineering, Ambala, Haryana—have taken to building cars.
The 15-year-old MM College decided last year it had to start designing cars. “We were spurred on by the problems of global warming and the need for fuel efficiency,” says Vivek Jain, assistant professor, mechanical department, MM College, who led a team of four students to build a tri-fuel car, Trio. “Moreover, nearby colleges were also making cars.”
The Indian arm of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAEINDIA) annual Baja SAE competition for students—to build a rugged, single seater, off-road vehicle—has seen the number of participant colleges jump nearly sixfold in three years. Twenty-seven colleges took part in the contest in 2008 and 56 in 2009. As many as 155 colleges have registered for the next event in January 2010.
Different kind: A Baja SAE off-road vehicle designed by nine students of the mechanical and automation branch of Amity School of Engineering and Technology.
“We never anticipated these kind of numbers,” says Kamal Vora, honorary secretary at SAEINDIA and senior assistant director at the Automotive Research Association of India, Pune. He, along with a 20-member organizing committee that draws experts from the automotive and racing fraternity, organize the event every year at the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project’s (Natrip) all-terrain test track in Indore. The track includes rocky surfaces and hairpin bends.
Working towards Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Automotive Mission Plan 2006-16, which aims to grow the Indian automotive sector four times from $34 billion (Rs1.6 trillion) in 2006 to $145 billion by 2016, Vora says: “We aim to train the future generation of automotive engineers.”
Baja SAE also acts as a hiring ground for students: 50 appointment letters were handed out in 2008, and 100 in 2009. Employers included Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, India’s largest maker of sport utility vehicles (SUVs), and Tata Motors Ltd, the country’s largest truck and bus manufacturer.
Engineering students in India mostly build cars around competitions. The vehicles are typically unfit for Indian roads as they are designed to comply with specific competition rules such as stipulated engine size and fuel efficiency.
Elsewhere, though, there are examples of students’ prototypes gaining more coinage. In December, San Jose State University professor Tai-Ran Hsu and his students unveiled a solar-powered vehicle. With a price tag of $4,000, the human-hybrid powered vehicle—human pedalling and an electric plug-in—is targeted at countries such as China, India and Mexico.
In 2006, engineering students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New Jersey, built a race car that was exhibited at the Saratoga Automobile Museum, New York, alongside Italian race car maker Maserati SpA’s R1.
Anurag Sharma, dean of students at IIT, Delhi, says students building cars in India is limited to a hobby. “For commercialization, it has be a much more serious business with much more faculty involvement. Undergraduate students have limited time.”
Engine power: Students of Amity School of Engineering and Technology, Delhi, with their hybrid car.
Student car projects are at a very basic level, says C.V. Raman, chief general manager, engineering, at India’s largest car maker, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. “The level of work is not at the commercialization level. (But) we have to start somewhere.” Maruti is an active sponsor of student car projects at IIT Delhi, Delhi College of Engineering and Manipal Institute of Technology.
RV College’s Garuda project, for instance, is far from roadworthy. While it has safety features such as a racing harness—a kind of seat belt system suited for sharp cornering—and a fire extinguisher, given its low ground clearance, it is unfit for India’s potholed roads.
But the competition gives students hands-on experience in automotive engineering. R.R. Sankarasubramanian, deputy director at SAEINDIA, says: “Boys (engineering students) don’t know fundamentals in R&D (research and development). Even in industrial training, students are not hands-on. They just observe.”
Nevertheless, the quality of the prototypes has taken a quantum leap over the past decade. “Students now use high-strength materials for engines and simulate the systems. Virtual validation is done before building the body,” says Raman of Maruti.
Today, electronically controlled fuel-injection engines have replaced the mechanical, carburettor engines of yesteryears. In the next three-five years, Raman sees more industry-academia interaction, which in India is in a nascent stage compared with universities in the US and Europe. Currently, Maruti has engaged IIT Delhi for an R&D project on an existing vehicle. Raman declined to reveal specifics.
Such enthusiasm in automotive engineering, though, often ebbs after graduation. Sharma of RV College has landed a job with engineering and construction company Larsen and Toubro Ltd even though he wants to explore his options with auto parts makers.
Saurabh Gupta and Pravin Carvalho, both IIT Madras students who have built a racing car, Formula SAE, too, have taken jobs not related with automotive engineering. Gupta is joining US oilfield services firm Schlumberger Ltd and Carvalho at Kolkata-based tobacco company ITC Ltd.
Mukkamala Pawan of Amity School of Engineering and Technology, Delhi, who built a hybrid car last year, now works with the world’s largest steel maker ArcelorMittal in New Delhi.
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First Published: Sat, Jun 20 2009. 12 30 AM IST
More Topics: Engineering colleges | Cars | IIT | SAEINDIA | NATRIP |