Photography: Mohd. Nasir
Akash Passey (AP): First of all I have had the privilege of being
the first bus employee in India way back in 1997. Suresh came around the same
time in trucks. Sometime in 2005 he moved on to Volvo Buses. For us it’s been a
long journey. When we started out with our first commercialisation on buses in
India in 2001 the concept was front engine, built on a truck chassis.
Manufacturers would only sell a chassis and you would have had to go to an
external body builder to build a body. With Volvo coming in these were the key
things that changed. We bought in rear engines, brought in bus chassis, and we
brought in a complete bus concept. The effect of that was very positive in the
initial years especially in the long distance segment where we started from and
then over a period of time in 2006 we moved to low floor air conditioned city
buses. This was a revolution as all city buses were built on a high floor
concept where you had to climb three steps to get into a bus and again they
were front engine city buses. To sum up we have around 5000 Volvo buses on the
road. In the long distance segment our buses are touching almost every town in
India. The city buses we started ten years back we have a presence in over 30
cities in India.
In 2014 you unveiled the UD Buses brand as part of the company’s
strategy to foray into the value segment in growth markets. How has progress
been on this front?
AP: As we went about our journey a number of other things happened.
We started off as a chassis manufacturer for a short while. We built up India’s
first complete bus company in 2007 as Volvo Buses India Pvt Ltd. We brought in
our global manufacturing practices into our plant here where we again invested
heavily from 2011 onwards in order to have a much broader role in India. With
that one thing was clearly visible. Our customers in the private space as well
as those in state and city corporations were fairly vocal about the fact that
we like your buses and we have our support when it comes to big premium brands
but we would also like you to take the next step and bring something of a
higher volume base in the value segment. And that’s where the though process
started three to four years back. We got into action and in 2014 we announced we
would introduce UD as a local brand in India primarily targeted at the value
segment. This means that in large cities there would be an option where you
find premium buses running in the centre, we could compliment this with value
buses on the outskirts of the city. In B category cities, these value buses
could become the main mode of transport. It is with that thinking we started
Suresh Chettiar (SC): This year we shall put the first UD buses on
the road. At this point of time we have decided to start the commercial roll
out with some trials with some customers and the first is being done so in
Bangalore. The first two buses given to Bangalore have been with them for two
months. Given the fact that these are first prototypes, we have so covered an extremely
good journey so far. The buses have been appreciated a lot by the passengers.
There have been no technical glitches at all. Later this year we shall start
the commercial roll out.
AP: These buses will be high on performance and will have high
levels of safety and will have environment norms in place. UD does stand for
reliability. India has an excellent opportunity, especially in the city segment
where the government has been taking of the smart city concept. With the smart
city concept coming in, along with Make in India and swachch Bharat, I think we as a company fit in well. With buses
already made in India, we have different kind of products both for the city and
the long distance segment.
You buses are produced in Hoskote near Bangalore, how many of these
buses are made at the plant, what is the current capacity and also what are the
levels of capacity utilisation and also the level of localisation?
AP: India is an important part of the international business I
manage. Prasad (VRV Sriprasad is Managing Director, Volvo Buses India) and team
have done a good job with the local operations in India. We have invested
heavily in expansion in the last three to four years here. On a single shift
basis our capacity for both inter-city and city buses is 1500 units per annum.
Then it is always easy to make it a double shift if the requirement comes in.
The facility is like any other Volvo facility anywhere in the world. The
facility has been built keeping exports in mind and the facility has been
exporting in the last could of years. We are in the start up of our export
journey. In the last few years we have been exporting to South Africa and the
team has also been preparing over the last three-four years which has resulted
in us announcing last month that we will, beginning early next year, start
exporting buses to Europe. When our buses are exported they are done so as
Completely Built Units as we do domestically in India.
The Volvo Electro Mobility Programme is into hybrid and electric buses.
Volvo has sold more than 5000 such buses across 20 odd countries in the last
few years. With the Indian government talking the electric and hybrid language,
do you hope to see such vehicles in India?
AP: The Volvo group in 2007 put in seven different types of
technologies over and above the diesel technology like CNG, ethanol, hybrid,
electric and so on and so forth. In Europe, going forward we debated what the
most efficient mode of transportation is, keeping the operator and the
passenger in mind. It came out fairly clearly that electro mobility will be the
path forward. While other technologies will prevail, they will have challenges
like they had in the last 30 years to scale up. Thousands of hybrid buses are
running across the world. They have been very well received. For the last year
and half we have started to focus on Asia. We are already bringing in our
hybrids to Australia, Singapore etc. We are playing a big role in China. It’s
also good to see that while the government is talking about scaling up from
Bharat Stage IV to V and VI, they are also looking into electro mobility. Among
the top five manufacturers in the world, Volvo probably is the only company
which is so well invested in electro mobility. We launched our first electric bus
in Gothenburg in Sweden this year. They are running fine and they are zero
emission pollution free. Coming to India, the roadmap will very much start from
hybrid buses. We are working very closely with regulatory authorities and with
FAME coming in the government is offering good subsidies. We see a lot of
interest from select state and city corporations which want to go that route.
Very soon you will hear from us on the hybrid space.
The buses in India have now to adhere to a new bus code beginning August
2015. For Volvo it must have been easy implementing this code?
SC: To put things in perspective, we started to invest on what
would be the next level of inputs into the bus. The fact that there was a good
industry and authority engagement in it, also gave us a lead in which direction
we need to work. So when the demands on us were to implement the same from
April 2015, I think we were the first company to be ready. Many of them we did
willingly without waiting for the code to happen. We are extremely proud of the
fact that we did the job first.
The buzz words are Make in India
and Smart Cities, does Volvo Buses see a mega opportunity and a grand
commitment there in India?
AP: At the cost of not being humble at this moment for a moment, it
was Volvo Group the first western global manufacturer to take that step nearly
17 years back with trucks and 15 years back with buses. We are happy to see
that other global manufacturers seeing this success are also following the same
route over the last year or two. That builds a kind of combination where we all
can together promote and bring more international and latest solution to India.
India is second largest in the world by way of population heading very soon to
be the largest, from that perspective of you look at the availability of public
transport, in comparison to the averages in different countries, India has one
of the lowest averages. There is enormous opportunity and the Volvo group is
very well invested here to take care of that opportunity. The last two to three
years have been challenging on the economic front. We now see both the central
and state governments are taking a number of actions. What they are stating and
wanting companies to do, Volvo has already done that and I think we are looking
forward to see or reap the fruits of this success and very much contribute with
different technologies in India.
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