Behind the flash and glam, a freemarket of homespun technologies | autos | Hindustan Times
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Behind the flash and glam, a freemarket of homespun technologies

autos Updated: Jan 05, 2010 23:18 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Inelegantly named the “Yo byke”, the colourful electric scooter hides its secret heart well — a cheap battery that can be recharged in four hours and gives it a claimed range 75 km. If true, the “Yo”, sitting in a tent outside the 10th Auto Expo’s main halls, boasts the best street cred for an Indian electric vehicle.

There are no strobe lights, no hostesses in mini skirts and no milling crowds to see the “Yo”, manufactured by a Gujarat steel company called Electrotherm (India) Ltd., one of the hundreds of smaller firms in the shadow of the Toyotas and Audis.

Hundreds of innovative small companies from Wazirpur in northwest Delhi to Wuhu in Central China have streamed in with homegrown technologies to what is how one of the world's most important auto fairs.

Some hope to be the next big thing or ramp-up business. Others just hope to be noticed.

Electrotherm’s main line of work is making furnaces, which they have exported to 20 countries over 28 years. Three years ago, they realised the power electronics used in furnaces could just as easily be adapted to improve conventional lead-acid batteries.

“We have a strong hold on electronics and that has helped us design a better battery,” said B K Vaishya, an IIT Delhi graduate who as Senior Vice President (R&D) at Electrotherm heads a team of 40 engineers, many poached from Tata, Bajaj and Mahindra.

This brains trust created the “Yo” — 75,000 have been sold — and its latest lead battery, which is 400 to 500 per cent cheaper than the lithium-ion batteries that the world’s car giants use.

Outside the Toyota pavilion under a wan winter sun, Rajendra Joshi is demonstrating what looks like a skinny Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing US electric vehicle.

Look closely and you find how the Rs 20,000 Emmel keeps its balance—with two smaller wheels hidden under the rider platform.

“It’s an Indian solution,” said Joshi. “If we had to use Segway technology, it might be 20 times as costly.” Targeted at malls and large campuses, the Emmel launches next month.

Inside the assembly line stalls that television crews find too boring to explore, you will find hundreds of small companies from all over the world — but mainly India and China — selling everything from gaskets to ignition wires to rubber mats.

Some like Arvind Singh Chandock, CEO of Styr, are too busy to talk. A banner said Styr (head office in Mumbai and factory in Belgaum, Karnataka) is India’s “number 1 crankshaft”.

On his first trip to India, International Sales Representative of the Wuhu Hefeng Clutch Co Ltd, Elbert Shi, also finds it hard to carry on a conversation as prospective clients drop in, grab Chinese sweets and talk to him about clutches.

“Do you have clutch for Middle East market?” asked a swarthy Punjabi whose shirt spilled out of his belt.

“Middle East, I have,” said Shi in halting English in a darkened tent without electricity. “I give you very good price.”

With India and China recording the highest growth rates among the world’s auto markets, it was only a matter of time before smaller manufacturers sought out one another.

In this freewheeling free-market, there are some like Jaspal and Satbir Singh, brothers who manufacture “replacement” plastic fans, or grey market duplicates, which they sell across India and to exporters who pack them into any container with space left over and ship them from South Africa to Saudi Arabia.

“Now toh India is the biggest market,” said Jaspal, who recalled how he learned to make and transport fans on his scooter 18 years ago. The family now has three cars.

As the Singhs speak, a smart, young woman stops by. “Aapko hostess chahiye (do you want a hostess)?” she asked.

Bemused, Satbir shakes his head. She moves on.