Over the last couple of years, tech has become a very integral part of the car, so much so, that more and more car buyers are now making placing certain features higher on their list of priorities, over the engine and the drive train.
In India, the carmaker that saw this trend coming and capitalised on it in a big way would be Tata Motors and their New Forever range. We sat down with Mohan Savarkar, the Chief Product Officer at Tata Motors Passenger Vehicles, for a chat about tech in cars, how has the Indian car buyer evolved over the last five years, and if cars really need generative AI, especially in India.
How would you say customer preference in terms of tech has changed in the last 5 years?
The last five years is when tech started making a real difference. Cars from the European markets were stratified into categories like entry-level, mid-level and luxury. This stratification defined what tech was in those cars. But even in the luxury car segment, the experience was more catered towards motoring rather than on tech.
This changed. One of the reasons may have been Covid, when people, who had some disposable income, ended up buying a lot of stuff that is much more high-tech than their cars. This started reflecting in terms of what they wanted to see in their cars.
For example, five years ago, there was not a huge demand for a feature like a sunroof. But now we are seeing that about 92 per cent of our customers of the Harrier and Safari opt for a sunroof. Even for other cars in India, the demand for sunroof has gone up from about 5 per cent in 2019, to over 26 per cent now.
Similarly, five years ago the penetration of ADAS was zero in the country but now it is at about 8 per cent and growing rapidly. Similarly, 360-degree cameras went from zero or maybe 1 per cent to 8 per cent now.
Features like six airbags, telematics, LED lamps, large infotainment screens, automatic transmissions, powered seats and so on are also seeing massive adoption. Automatic transmission, in particular, is becoming really popular and has gone from about 8 per cent to 27 per cent as of last year.
In India, we are set to follow the trajectory of more developed economies when it comes to cars, even though the car penetration per thousand people in the country isn’t that high.
What inspired the new design philosophy for Tata’s New Forever range?
What we are seeing is that people are evolving quickly over a short period. People are quick to adapt, and adopt new technology across all spheres of life.
For long, cars have been lagging, when compared to our devices. It was like stepping back in time, once you enter your car.
That was the trigger for us that made us reconsider how can we keep up with the other aspects of people’s lives and the pace with which they were adopting new tech. That’s what set the course for New Forever.
Tech outside the car is ever-evolving and ever-changing. We had to make sure that we were able to match that in our cars. If we don’t do that, then people will start thinking that our cars are lagging behind what they experience otherwise in their lives. This helps us to make sure that we are staying on course in regard to what people expect and what we give.
What are the most demanded tech and features that buyers are looking for?
All the features that we spoke of earlier — sunroof, LED headlights, large infotainment screens, automatic transmissions, powered seats etc. — are in demand, in varying degrees, in various cars.
In cars like the Tata Nexon, most of these things are taken for granted, customers just want these things. The sunroof, in particular, is something that everyone wants.
Has the preference even for car enthusiasts moved from the experience of driving to the creature comforts of a car?
Yes, it has. People are now looking at how they experience a car more than just getting from point A to point B, so carmakers are also adapting to that. Not just the people in the front seat, but people in the rear sets also want some tech or some feature from the car.
What is Tata’s strategy in terms of tech and features for their new cars? What is their philosophy regarding tech in cars?
It would be timing. It’s not as if we are not aware of a lot of tech that is available. We like to make sure that we time it in a way that will reflect where the Indian consumer is going, and what is it that they want.
For example, we have gone for more of a digital theme for the Harrier, Safari and Nexon. The interior as well as the exterior focuses a lot on the digital, and this has been received rather well by our customers. Had we done this three years ago, it may have been too early, and perhaps would not have received the kind of response it does today.
We have to strike a balance in this regard and keep track of technology, developing new tech, and making sure that we’re delivering new features and tech at the right time.
Is India ready for higher levels of assisted driving features like ADAS Level 3 or higher?
OEMs can add features for up to level 2 ADAS on their own. From level 3 onwards, the infrastructure on the road starts making a difference. In some places, the infrastructure in India is becoming better, whereas in other places, a lot of work has to be done. It may be too soon for level 3 ADAS systems in India.
But there is a silver lining in India’s case. Countries like China have only been able to do it recently. And even in countries like the US, it has not been widely adopted. Moreover, our journey to up to level two ADAS is driven more by economics than other things. This is where India will surely catch up.
In the US, ADAS started appearing at level zero around 2010-11. Almost 12-13 years later, they hardly have any cars that come with ADAS Level 2+. In India the first cars to have ADAS started appearing in 2020 and in about three years, about 8 per cent of cars have ADAS at some level.
Take ABS or anti-lock braking systems as another example. ABS came to India around 2006, as a differentiating feature. Now, you don’t have a car without ABS. That journey took us 14 years. With ADAS the journey will be much shorter.
There is a huge appetite in India for adopting such tech as we have seen in the case of smartphones, or say emission norms among other things. Plus, we are well known for jumping generations.
We are seeing some car manufacturers in the West integrate generative AI technology like ChatGPT in their cars. Is there any need for generative AI in cars, especially in India?
Generative AI is on its own separate path. It is something that will integrate into other aspects of our lives first before you start seeing it in cars. The question is, will it be a journey that is as long as other tech?
Perhaps not, given that every new tech that is made available, gets adopted quicker than the one before, and usually has a shorter timeline requirement for getting adopted at a large scale.
A case in point would be our journey from 3G to 4G and then 4G to 5G. The kind of acceptance rates that we had for 5G in India is phenomenal. AI also has to be used in a meaningful way for us to start seeing its real-life uses and then trying to bring it into cars. Although it may take a little time, it won’t take too long.
What kind of technology can buyers expect to see more of in cars in the next 5 years?
There was a time when things did not change for 20 odd years, but now, five years is a very long time in our industry. But some of the things that will be prevalent are software-defined vehicles or SDVs, and I am keeping them separate from ADAS. With SDVs, you put the software together first, and then let the software decide what kind of hardware is required. This is still on the horizon and is yet to go mainstream, but once they are here, it will overtake us very fast.