Tata engineering chief Dr Clive Hickman

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Dr Clive Hickman is living, breathing evidence that the UK automotive industry still has something to offer the world — if, that is, it can recapture its fighting spirit. Jon Excell reports.

Dr Clive Hickman is living, breathing evidence that the UK automotive industry still has something to offer the world — if, that is, it can recapture its fighting spirit.

A plain-speaking and passionate advocate of new technology, a veteran of the Midlands car industry and former managing director of Ricardo, Hickman is now head of engineering at the emerging superpower of the automotive world: India’s Tata Motors.

A long-standing icon of Indian industry, Tata is already India’s largest car producer by a considerable margin, commanding around 70 per cent of the domestic market. Its ambitions, however, are dizzying. While attempting to spark an Indian transport revolution through the introduction of the cheapest production vehicle in the world — the Nano — Tata is also looking further afield, largely through Hickman’s Warwick University-based European technical centre, at the technologies and opportunities that lie elsewhere.

Talking to The Engineer just days after the launch of the Nano, the man who just might have one of the most interesting jobs in the global car industry appeared relieved to be getting back to what he enjoys most. ‘Launch events are not my scene. I’d much rather be involved in the engineering,’ he said. (Hickman’s Tata remit does not currently include Jaguar Land Rover, which the group also owns.)

At the helm since the project was given the go-ahead in 2005 Hickman is proud of what his team of engineers has achieved: it is not often that a car maker carves out an entirely new niche. ‘If we tried to do what VW [Volkswagen] do, we would always be a second-class VW. We have to do something different and set a niche for ourselves — Nano is a classic example,’ he added.

While many Western reviewers have been unkind to the Nano — Jeremy Clarkson wrote that he would rather kiss Nicholas Witchell than drive one — Hickman believes that these critics are missing the point: ‘The incentive for us was purely to try to get a family of four that rides on a motorcycle into a safe form of transport at a price they could afford — 100,000 rupees [£1,360]. It means that people who are paying 70,000 or 80,000 rupees for a motorcycle can stretch to that other 20,000 rupees to be able to buy a car. It does exactly what I wanted it to do: it’s at the price we said, it’s a credible car and it is safe.’

Although the Nano, in its current form, is aimed squarely at the Indian market, Hickman said that the company is considering launching a modified European model. He added that, while a UK car market awash with cut-price luxury vehicles would undoubtedly create tough conditions for a European Nano, the car’s environmental credentials could go down well with British drivers. ‘When you think that we’ll be able to get less than 100g/km of CO2 in a petrol vehicle — which is our aim for anything we bring to Europe — that really does make a big difference,’ said Hickman.

In the shorter term, he is far more excited about the European prospects for an all-electric version of Tata’s Indica family hatchback. A joint project between the European technical centre and Norwegian electric-vehicle specialist Miljo (which is 72 per cent owned by Tata), the Indica EV’s lithium battery gives it a top speed of 128km/h (80mph), a charging time of four to eight hours and a range of 200km (124 miles) at a constant speed of 60km/h.

Currently nearing the final stages of development, the vehicle is expected to arrive at Norwegian showrooms this time next year and will then be rolled out across Europe. According to Hickman, Norway is the perfect place to launch an electric vehicle. Its electricity, derived from hydroelectric generation, is practically free and the widespread mains connections used to power sump heaters mean that much of the infrastructure required for electric vehicles is already in place.

There is also a pretty compelling economic case, he said: ‘The Norwegian market doesn’t have any indigenous product and there’s a 120 per cent import duty on any car you bring into the country. So an electric vehicle, which is traditionally more expensive than a petrol car, becomes comparable in price to a conventional vehicle.’

Although thicker power cables could reduce the charging time to around 30 minutes, Hickman believes that this will not be necessary. The idea is that users will carry out their main charge late in day using off-peak energy. ‘The thing about the electric vehicle in Europe is that the power-generation companies still have peak demands at around 5-6pm and we still have excess energy overnight,’ he said.

‘Rather than having to cycle the turbines, we may be able to help them. We could plug in our vehicles overnight and take energy at that off-peak period. At 5-6pm, if people have come home and plugged in their electric vehicle, it might be possible to actually suck the residual charge out of the battery to support the grid,’ said Hickman.

It is a sign of Tata’s global sensibilities that the electric car is being aimed at a European market. EVs simply would not be suitable for India, he said. ‘Most of the energy generated in India is through fossil-fuel generation, so putting an electric vehicle in India only gives zero emissions at point of use. Plus we don’t have enough power at the moment. There are still days where specific regions have a power-down,’ added Hickman.

One avenue of research for Indian low-emission vehicles is the development of hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines — something that Tata is working on with India’s space agency. Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles could use the waste products from other areas of the Tata Group. ‘We make a lot of steel and one of the by-products of the quenching process is hydrogen. It’s about 95 per cent pure so not good enough for a fuel cell, but it is ideally suited to go through an IC engine. If we can get the technologies to capture and distribute that hydrogen, then we’re well on the way to some fairly good ways of dealing with hydrogen,’ he said.

Numerous other disruptive technologies are under Hickman’s microscope, from a ‘very different’ type of rotary engine, which he briefly alluded to, to the compressed-air engine developed by French company MDI. ‘We’re looking at what can we do that gives us a technology lead over competitors. Some things we’re looking at will come to fruition, some of them won’t, but we’re trying to get ourselves a broad portfolio of different technologies and work on each of those to see which one is going to give us the most potential for the long term,’ he said.

It is a commitment to research and development (R&D) that Hickman believes sets Tata apart from its rivals. ‘Even though we’re in a recession, the company believes the future is in new products, so the R&D spend has stayed high and we’ve had to cut costs elsewhere — it’s a nice approach to take and one that we would probably not normally see in Europe,’ he said.

For all its expertise, rich skill base and manufacturing heritage, Hickman claims that the UK could learn a lot from the Indian auto industry: ‘I’d like to compare the Indian auto industry with what I see in the UK now. When I was a young engineer working for Rover, I was really determined, along with my colleagues, to make a good product and get to the marketplace fast — and that was the driver and we would put in whatever hours God sent to enable us to do that. I remember working late nights, all day Saturday and Sunday, because we had a fire in our belly and we wanted to achieve something.

‘And that’s what I see in India: the people are there before me in the morning and they go home after me at night. That hasn’t happened in the UK for 20 years. I think that we’ve lost something in the UK in terms of that drive. Maybe I’m being unfair to many of my colleagues out there but that’s what I feel. The guys in India want to be successful. They’re trying really, really hard to be successful and they’ll put in whatever effort is required to be successful. I think we’ve probably reached that level of success and become complacent in Europe,’ he said.

Perhaps the current climate and the prospect of a fight for survival will help bring back some of this fire, but what nobody should do, Hickman warned, is underestimate the ambitions of Tata Motors. ‘Tata is on a flight path where it’s going to be one of the biggest players in the long term. We’re putting in the effort and we’ve got the technology to help us to do that,’ he added.