Government needs to take call on safety standards, emission norms that critics say will be compromised by the RE60
It could be mistaken for a large golf cart or an over-sized toy car.
Powered by a water-cooled, 216-cc, single-cylinder engine ensconced in a metal-polymer monocoque body, it weighs 400 kg, has a turning radius of 3.5 metre and can reach a top speed of 70 kmph. It can seat the driver and three passengers and run 35 kilometres on a litre of petrol.
This is the RE60, the so-called quadricycle that its maker Bajaj Auto Ltd is plugging as an alternative to the auto rickshaw that comes with four wheels instead of three. Having invested ₹ 550 crore in developing the platform and creating the capacity to produce 5,000 of the vehicles every month, the Pune-based maker of motorcycles and three-wheelers is awaiting government approvals for the commercial launch of the RE60.
The government needs to take a call on safety standards and emission norms that critics, including rival manufacturers, say will be compromised by the quadricycle. They want the government to lay down norms as stringent as those applicable to cars; Bajaj Auto said the RE60 isn’t a car and won’t compete in the car market and is seeking less stringent standards for the contraption.
“We are attacking ourselves by raising the bar," said Rajiv Bajaj, managing director, who first showcased the RE60 at the India auto show in New Delhi in 2012.
To be sure, the concept of a quadricycle is not new. It was in 2004 that V. Sumantran, then head of the passenger car business unit at Tata Motors Ltd, proposed such a vehicle—an idea that was shot down by rival manufacturers including its present champion Bajaj Auto and Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, India’s largest car maker, which differed on safety parameters and specifications including the maximum speed and weight of the vehicle.
Much has changed in India’s automobile market since 2004. Sales more than doubled to 2.68 million units in the year ended 31 March 2013 from 1.1 million units in the year to 31 March, 2004. But differences over the quadricycle haven’t gone away; only the pro- and anti- camps have exchanged positions.
“(A) quadricycle will be diluting the safety and pollution norms. We gave up on it at least a decade ago as at that time Maruti had questioned the norms and Bajaj opposed it on the same parameters," said Venu Srinivasan, chairman of Chennai-based TVS Motor.
“I do not understand why they want to introduce the same product now," Srinivasan said. “If you opposed it years ago, why are you introducing it now? Only Rajiv can answer that."
Since first showcasing the RE60 last year, Bajaj has been holding meetings with government agencies and auto rickshaw unions to make his case for the quadricycle.
A technical committee formed by the ministry of road transport and highways is yet to vet the proposal by Bajaj to manufacture quadricycles. Only after the committee clears the proposal and lays down the norms for a quadricycle can Bajaj commercially launch the vehicle in India.
A government official said the auto maker had sought safety and emission norms that are less stringent than those for cars. “However, the government will ensure that rules and regulations do not get compromised," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The technical committee is expected to submit its report on regulations for the quadricycle on 23 April, this person said.
If the government allows the RE60, should India have its own standards for the quadricycle or use those enforced in the European Union (EU)?
Bajaj wants EU norms to be adopted in India. At least 16 new quadricycle models are expected to be launched in Europe in the next three years, according to R.C. Maheshwari, president of the commercial vehicle business at Bajaj Auto.
Ravi Chopra, chairman of Piaggio Vehicles India, who is in favour of quadricycles, agreed that if such vehicles do become a reality in India, they should follow European standards. Chopra added, however, that the government should first create a level-playing field and not give the RE60 clearance for commercial production without giving other auto makers time to develop a similar vehicle.
“European norms should be adopted in entirety. A partial implementation to suit one manufacturer would be opposed," said Pankaj Dubey, managing director at the local arm of Polaris Inc., one of the biggest firms globally for all-terrain vehicles and quadricycles.
But even in Europe, quadricycles haven’t been a raging success, said an executive at a car manufacturer who declined to be identified.
Only 23,800 quadricycles were sold in Europe in 2011, the executive said. The three main traditional markets for quadricycles—France, Italy and Spain—have seen their sales fall from a high of 29,000 in 2007 to just 18,000 in 2011.
The vehicles are used either by the elderly or those not old enough to qualify for regular driving licences.
An executive at a car maker who spoke on condition of anonymity pointed out that in Europe, quadricycles are used as recreational and sporting vehicles in sparsely populated areas, and argued that India should lay down standards that are commensurate with the purpose for which the vehicle is used and where it plies.
“In India, the intention seems to be that quadricycles will replace, or be in addition to, three wheelers in cities. Surely the usage pattern of the type likely in India, where safety and pollution is a large concern, should not follow a regressive path," this executive said. “We should be trying to reduce pollution, and increase road safety, instead of approving a vehicle that would be less safe and more polluting than cars."
Whether European norms for quadricycles are adequate is questionable.
For instance, car makers in India have to comply with frontal crash testing norms, which include steering intrusion and side impact tests, said Shrikant Marathe, director of the Automotive Research Association of India.
“This is to test that the steering does not hit the chest of the driver in the event of a collision or sudden slamming of brakes," he said.
However, European regulations on quadricycles do not require the vehicles to comply with any form of crash testing regulations.
In 2007, the European Transport Safety Council, the apex body of safety regulations in the continent, said the fatality risk in a quadricycle is 10 to 14 times higher than that in cars. The report revealed that in 2006, quadricycles resulted in 16% of the road deaths in the EU.
“I think the issues raised during that time still stand true unless a quadricycle matches crash standards (that are the) equivalent of small cars. We took a conscious call that TVS will not make one at the cost of endangering people’s lives," said Srinivasan of TVS.
A senior official at Hyundai Motor India Ltd, India’s second largest car maker by sales, also said the safety standards for quadricycle should be on par with those for cars.
“The current vehicle categories are well defined by the regulatory bodies. Any new form of vehicle product should necessarily comply with the existing, stipulated safety, emission and defined registration norms for the safety of the passengers and public," said Rakesh Srivastava, senior vice-president of marketing and sales at Hyundai.
Vishnu Mathur, director general of the industry lobby group Siam, declined to comment for this story. “We don’t have an opinion on the subject," he said.
In his proposal to the technical committee, Bajaj has emphasized that given its low top speed, the quadricycle wouldn’t be plying on expressways and highways.
S.P. Singh, a senior fellow at Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training, said that with highways intersecting city roads, it’s not possible to escape them. Driving a quadricycle can be dangerous on the highways, where vehicles speeds are an average 80 kmph, and it could add to the country’s road accident rate, he warns.
“With the country already having the dubious reputation of having the highest number of accidents in the world— 116,000 per annum in 2011—it would be shocking if such vehicles are allowed," he said.
Bajaj Auto maintains that the vehicle does not need to meet crash testing norms as such norms are a function of speed. The top speed of even the smallest car, the Tata Nano for instance, is 105 kmph, against the RE60’s 70. Even the power output is lower.
“When we first showed the product during the auto expo, we clearly said it’s not a car," said Maheshwari.
He said a car buyer would not aspire for a vehicle like the quadricycle and it would always remain a choice for those looking for a commercial vehicle.
“It doesn’t match the speed, weight or performance of a car. Moreover, it doesn’t even have the luggage space. How can it encroach on cars," said Maheswari.
Analysts note that in January 2008, Bajaj Auto had unveiled a concept passenger car with an expected price of $3,000, which was to compete with the Nano.
The company had partnered with Renault-Nissan for the ultra low-cost (ULC) car project, which was scheduled to hit the roads in India in 2011, but delayed due to differences between the partners on pricing and design, according to a 25 September 2012 Press Trust of India (PTI) report. While Renault-Nissan wanted to price the car at around $2,500, Bajaj insisted on lowering the overall cost of ownership.
In November 2009, Rajiv Bajaj said the product being developed would be aligned differently from the initial concept as the small car was commercially unviable. According to the PTI report, Nissan decided not to continue its partnership with Bajaj for the sourcing of the ultra-low cost car, ending months of uncertainty.
Of course, the quadricycle does have its supporters.
“India should have introduced quadricycles at least 10 years ago as it offers a viable solution between a two-wheeler and cars," said Paris-based Gautam Sen, consulting editor, Auto India magazine.
Across the world, consumers feel the need for a small, fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicle that can “easily be maneuvered in the congested cities," said Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair professor emeritus at the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi.
“This has to be different from the universal cars (something that’s fit to run everywhere) as the universal cars require lot of power and hence leads to wastage of energy," he said.
A safety standards committee that’s independent of any multinational company should define the norms for a vehicle that cannot exceed 60 kmph, Mohan said. On the suitability of European norms for quadricycles in India, he saw no problem.
“We have been adopting European standards for safety and emission. Why question them now?"