Amaan AhmedOct 25, 2021 17:06:46 IST
Seven years – that’s how long it has been since Global NCAP (GNCAP) first crash-tested a Tata vehicle. It was in 2014 when the affable-but-unfortunate Tata Nano received a dismal zero stars from the global safety watchdog for its poor showing, but since then, plenty has changed – Tata Motors now has three vehicles in its portfolio that have secured a full five stars in GNCAP tests, the latest of them being the just-launched Tata Punch. It’s a major achievement, considering the Punch is the most affordable vehicle in the country to secure this accolade, and operates in a price segment where customers have so far never expected five-star levels of safety.
To understand how Tata managed to bag the highest GNCAP rating for its smallest SUV yet, we caught up with Anand Kulkarni, VP – Product Line Head (ALFA), for a deeply insightful chat.
How big a role does the ALFA platform have to play in the Punch’s stellar GNCAP performance?
The platform does have a role to play. The ALFA platform the Altroz and Punch are based on is a platform meant to deliver the highest safety products that conform to the highest safety standards in the market. ALFA is modular, lightweight and yet very safe. And because it was conceived with safety as a key attribute in mind, it also enables the development time and development cost to be minimised once the platform is ready. The platform does make a difference, because it helps us leverage common elements that have already been proven and build on that to manage the additional differentiation or differences that a new product would need to be brought on.
What were the specific areas relating to the platform you had to look at to ensure the Punch could pull off a five-star-worthy performance?
When we say platform, we are talking about similar structures in terms of the load path and an underfloor underpinning that is similar to a large extent. We’re talking about parts that are shared across the two vehicles, which would have been proven for their structural and crash-related performances in the Altroz itself. And essentially, it’s about making sure that when a crash impulse happens, how does that impulse get divided into the overall vehicle, so the occupant is in the best possible cocoon of safety. It depends on crush lengths, it depends on the mechanism by which the crash impulse is being deflected, to sort of yield in some places so that the energy can be absorbed properly. And then, of course, there are certain individual aspects.
The Altroz’s seats are lower, whereas the Punch’s seats are higher; as a result of that, there are a couple of vital differences. The angle of the steering column in an SUV will always be different slightly than in a hatchback. Similarly, the H-point will be different because in an SUV, you would want it to be slightly taller, to give you the commanding driving position. What that means is when the crash impulse hits you, it will mean a slightly different reaction of the human body to that particular impact. And you need to cater to these kinds of changes. So, despite it being in a different location in a different package at a different height, the injury to the human body is restricted to a certain level only.
Global NCAP essentially has a points scale for different parts of the human body. Depending upon the kind of injury sustained by the crash dummies, you lose points. If you score 16 points out of 17, then a five-star rating is on the cards. As engineers, we look at a series of evaluations, simulations, test results, some on the sled, some on the platform only, some with the vehicle, and so on. It’s a graded-step process or method by which we evaluate, trying to ensure the damage to the human body is minimised to the best possible extent. And to that end, we make whatever changes needed to the platform, to the sheet metal, to the strength of the components to the load members to the impulse bearing members.
Was it a bigger challenge for the Punch to secure the GNCAP five-star rating? If yes, why?
Oh yeah, it is challenging, because you’re talking about a smaller footprint, and you’re also talking about a minimal front overhang. If you have a car with a very large overhang, you essentially have a larger area which can absorb the entire impact. Now, you could make it extremely stiff, and make it to not yield at all, but while the force does not get carried across to the occupants, the deceleration forces resulting out of the car coming to a sudden stop can often be harmful and detrimental. So, as a development engineer, you have a challenge of how much to allow it to deflect, deform or yield, and how much to allow to transmit to the passengers. It’s always a balance that you have to strike, a budgeting that has to be done, and this has to be done appropriately.
When you have a shorter overhang, the challenges are always going to be there. How do you absorb the crash energy within the minimum crash space, right, and which will lead to lower energy being transferred to the occupant in the event of a crash. And for this, the challenge that we overcame in the case of Punch was by maintaining the required crush space within the smaller overhang. We did not compromise on the amount of crush space that was needed, we allowed the car to have that crush space. And that was the challenge our teams overcame. We had to do multiple levels of iterations to optimise this crush space, which was required within the engine compartment. Because it’s not only about space as a dimension, it’s also about the form, it’s also about the geometry of that space and how you allow that crush to take place.
Despite the shared platform, what specific adjustments were needed for the Punch to perform just as well as the Altroz?
In the case of the Punch, we had to work on specific aspects. There are differences – we have an active pedal blocker, which eliminates the possibility of grievous leg injuries. We have reinforcements in certain areas, and we also have what is called the driver’s anchor pretensioner. It prevents pelvic injuries because it puts the entire body into a pre-tension as soon as a collision is detected. All these improvements have had to be done, specifically for the Punch. And therefore, yes, there was a challenge in terms of being able to achieve it.
How do you assess and set internal targets for vehicles when it comes to crash test ratings?
We follow what is called as an attribute ranking process for most of the attributes that we deliver on the cars. Safety is one of our key pillars. We would always want ourselves to be in the leadership space when it comes to safety. Now, leadership is relative; it is not an absolute number, but how you fare with respect to other vehicles in the market, and you need to be in the leadership with respect to that philosophy. This starts with the level of protection that we need to provide right at the concept level of the programme. When you have a programme that runs on a platform that’s going to sustain you for many years, it has to be a capable platform that can accommodate the upgrades that happen to regulations over a period of time.
We try and make sure that right in the beginning, we know exactly what changes would be required in the timeframe that a product is launched, and work actively towards ensuring those targets are met. The criteria are laid down, transparently, the teams can go to work on figuring how they’re going to achieve, let’s say, 14 out of 16 points? There’ll always be difficulties that people will encompass, but then the development phase of the programme allows engineers to iterate, innovate and develop additional solutions If required, to try and make sure the targets are achieved.
With two five-star-rated cars on the ALFA platform, does it make life challenging for you in the way that future ALFA products can’t afford to score lower?
From a customer perspective, you now know that this platform is a very stable, safe, robust, and doubly verified platform. So that gives you a sense of assurance; a sense of security knowing it’s going to be a safe car. Safety regulations keep evolving. What we considered safety 10 years back, is different from what we consider it to be today. And therefore, this is not like a silver bullet, where we see five stars today and believe we’re always going to have those five stars always. It is going to be exceedingly hard work to make sure that every other product from on this platform can achieve a level of performance its predecessors have been able to achieve. So that is going to be a challenge going forward. These challenges are going to be also looked at against how much does ‘safe’ mean in terms of absolute protection and how much does safe mean in terms of adding cost elements.
Internally, the way that we look at safety is not necessarily only in terms of what happens in the event of a collision, but also in terms of what do you do to prevent a collision. When you sit high and upright, you have a certain view out of the car, which allows you to gauge what’s the kind of situation you are in. If you have good headlight illumination, that in most cases is also good for you to avoid certain situations. We have to look at all these things to make sure that the cars are safe. You could make the car like a tank, but there’s a certain element of cost, there is a certain element of technology to it, and by doing that, you would make sure the car is not within the purview of the average buyer. We’ve got to look at how safety is evolving, and what needs to be done to ensure customers are safe.
What’s the impact of adding reinforcements necessary for achieving a great crash test rating on overall costs?
I would not like to say that ‘x’ is the cost of safety, because, you know, the cost of safety is to who experiences an incident. It could be invaluable to somebody who does get into a situation and escapes unhurt. And it could be a sort of a burden for somebody who does not, fortunately, have any such experience. So, yes, there will always be an element of cost, because you use certain high-strength steel elements, you use hot-stamped elements, and you use more equipment on the cars. Once you have built in safety into the platform, it does not become possible for us to even hypothetically assess how much each star is worth. It could add, depending upon what level of safety you are at, it could add about a couple of percentage points or more in terms of the development costs of the car.
Global NCAP’s crash test protocol will evolve with time. Are you open to making inclusions – such as electronic stability control – which may become necessary to retain your current ratings?
The GNCAP team has only recently revised and released the new protocol, which will become effective from July 2022. Our teams are currently studying how we would be able to manage this. One aspect is compliance, but had we been in the business of compliance only, then we wouldn’t have followed safety with such focus. There is a cadence to how GNCAP will evaluate the cars, in what sequence and at what frequency. We have to look at all that, as well as the time it takes for certain high-end equipment to go inside the car.
The Global NCAP story for Tata began with the Nano’s dismal showing in 2014. How have things changed at TaMo since from an engineering point of view, and also with regards to vehicular safety?
The 2014 incident you refer to is just one part. Even if you looked at our cars previously, and we made cars for a good part of a couple of decades even before that. Be it the Safari or the Sierra, they were always considered to be safe. Because how they perform in a regulated, standardised test is only one thing. Back in 1998, we had our first crash test facility in the country. Nobody, not even the regulatory bodies at that time, had a crash test facility, and we were the first to build one. Our journey is not something triggered by one particular event. Yes, the cars today have become safer. Yes, there is equipment to go along with it. And in fact, even when the mandate in the country was a 48 kph full frontal test, we were already doing 56 kph offset frontal test. So, we were ahead of what was required only in terms of a mandate.
The initiative by GNCAP was to ensure that safety gets its due. It all came at a certain point of time when the people started valuing safety. Tata Motors’ cars were always talked about as safe cars. But it was the customers who got into an incident who were grateful to Tata for saving their life. Global NCAP provided a great platform to be able to participate in a global programme and show that these are cars which are safe. I’ll be very humble in saying that the GNCAP experiences have taught us a lot. It has enabled us to make sure that our cars become ever safer without having to resort to adding weight or anything of that sort. We got challenged, and our engineers have delivered fantastic products.
Going forward, does Tata Motors aspire to be seen in the same light as Volvo Cars, which is famous worldwide for its unwavering focus on vehicle safety?
You don’t take positions as a fleeting moment – you take them for a significantly longer period, and over time, these become part of the brand’s DNA. In the last four or five years there has been a focus, there has been added effort to make sure safety is important to us. Over a period, it will become a part of our DNA in many ways, when you consider the perception of Tata in India is now similar to what Volvo’s on a global level, I think it’s the realisation that the DNA is now of safe cars. One can’t be situational and say a particular car will be a certain way, while another car will be done a different way; the desire would always be to do better than the rest of the cars in the market. Whether that always translates to a five-star rating or not is a different matter, but leadership is about being better than the rest of the competition.