With ~3.49 million units combined sold in commercial and passenger vehicles categories, India was the fifth-largest auto market in 2020. Following this, the country’s automobile sector (including component manufacturing) is estimated to be worth Rs. 16.1-18.1 trillion (US$ 251.4-282.8 billion) by 2026. According to the Federation of Automobile Dealers Associations, despite of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, sales of luxury cars were recorded at 18,094 units in FY21. This can be attributed to increasing popularity and affordability of luxury cars among the ‘rich’ in India. Another report titled ‘India Wealth Report 2021’ by Knight Frank India highlighted that the number of ultra-high net-worth individuals (UNHIs, with net worth >US$ 30 million) is likely to increase by 63% by 2025 (6,884 UNHIs in 2020), depicting a bright future for the sale of luxury cars in the country.
Owing to the country’s strong domestic demand, R&D capabilities and low-cost base, India went from being a net importer of automobiles to becoming a top manufacturer and exporter of vehicles and its components. Regardless of India’s capabilities, most OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) design and test their products in just five countries, i.e., Japan, Germany, the US, South Korea and Italy. Moreover, as compared with other industries, auto companies spend a substantial capital on R&D, with the top 14 global automotive companies contributing ~3.5-8% of their net sales to the R&D of innovative technologies. As India lacked performance testing infrastructure needed by the domestic and international OEMs, OEMs have to invest substantial time and money by travelling to highly advanced facilities across the world for testing their products.
Following this, the government introduced key initiatives such as the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric vehicles (FAME) programme, the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRIP) and added regulatory measures including early implementation of Bharat Stage (BS) VI to enhance the country’s automobile production and performance testing capabilities. However, due to lack of equipped high-speed tracks within manufacturing facilities for high-end cars such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz, the government launched the National Automotive Test Tracks (NATRAX) programme.
The National Automotive Test Tracks (NATRAX) Project
NATRAX is an automotive testing and certification centre that was developed under the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRIP) under the aegis of the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises. The project is built on 4,140 acres of land at a cost of Rs. 1,321 crore (US$ 177.07 million) in Pithampur, Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
NATRAX was launched with an aim to offer world-class evaluation and testing services for all vehicular categories, ranging from 2-3 wheelers to heavy commercial vehicles with national and international standards. Under this programme, the government hoped to foster the Indian automotive industry to develop indigenous, safe and high-performance vehicles.
The centre comprises 16 testing tracks, with 12 operational tracks as follows:
The facility also features the following five test laboratories that facilitate R&D capabilities for automotive players to simulate real road conditions for testing applications:
With the NATRAX initiative, the government plans to build the world’s largest high-speed track, which can be used to conduct development and homologation testing for all types of vehicles.
NATRAX – High-Speed Track (HST)
On June 29, 2021, Ex-Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, Mr. Prakash Javadekar inaugurated Asia’s longest and world’s fifth-longest high-speed track for automobiles in Pithampur, Indore, Madhya Pradesh. With this launch, the government aimed to attract global companies to test automotive applications and reduce reliance of domestic OEMs on overseas testing facilities.
The 11.3-kilometer high-speed track is located on 1,000 acres of land within the National Automotive Test Tracks (NATRAX-Indore) centre. The track consists of two semi-circular bends that allow vehicles to reach a maximum neutral speed of 250 kmph without touching the steering wheel, while vehicles with steering control can reach a maximum speed of 375 kmph on curves due to the track's lower banking on ovals. This makes the NATRAX-High Speed Track (HST) one of the safest test tracks in the world.
The HST will be used to determine speed capabilities of high-end vehicles, such as Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla, that currently cannot be tested on regular testing tracks in the country. Further, as the track is strategically built in Madhya Pradesh, which is at the centre of all states, most OEMs can easily access the facility and conduct performance testing domestically. This will thereby reduce the overall testing time, costs associated to high-speed testing abroad and other overheads.
By leveraging these capabilities, the government can invite foreign OEMs to build prototypes and test vehicles for Indian roads and hence, meet their high-speed testing requirements.
In addition to speed tests, the HST facilitates a wide range of tests including maximum speed, acceleration, coasting, brake fade, constant speed fuel consumption, emission tests through real road driving simulation, high-speed handling and high-speed durability testing.
The HST is likely to boost India’s automotive sector’s testing capabilities and will create an opportunity for global OEMs to enter the Indian market and start utilizing its indigenously developed testing facilities that are designed especially for the Indian roads with global standards.
In February 2021, JK Tyre & Industries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with NATRAX to develop and polish wet grip test tracks at the NATRAX centre. Under this partnership, the two companies will assess the safety of tyres through ECE R117 regulated wet grip test, wet braking test and peak brake force coefficient (PBFC) tests. ECE R117 is the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) regulation that is used to approve tyres with respect to rolling sound emissions, rolling resistance and adhesion on wet surfaces. The company further added that it will test its future range of tyres on the track, once the wet track is completed.
Due to stringent vehicle testing norms in the Indian automotive industry, current market players have heightened their testing practises across various parameters. Also, as the government frequently revises the country’s vehicle safety norms, auto makers have become more diligent to comply with those rules in a timely manner to retain their respective market shares.
In addition, India has been well positioned in automotive testing facilities since the last two decades. The ARAI centre in Pune, Maharashtra, and ICAT in Manesar, Haryana, are well-equipped testing facilities; this has helped domestic manufactures achieve numerous landmarks in attaining automotive standards and regulations. However, the need for a world-class automotive proving ground has been always critical in the country and with launch of the National Automotive Test Tracks (NATRAX), India has taken a step closer to become a world leader in automotive performance testing.