With a career spanning over three decades, Rashmi talks about her journey from being a Trainee Engineer to becoming the first Woman Director of ARAI. She discusses the challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated industry and how she overcame them with her strong commitment and ethical values. Rashmi also shares her thoughts on green mobility and the role of government initiatives like PLIs in promoting sustainable transportation.
What motivated you to pursue a career in automotive engineering, a field that was a typical for women in the past? How difficult was it for you to navigate this male-dominated industry?
I love challenges! As a student, I always dreamt of carving out a place for myself in the Research and Development field. Engineering came as a natural choice. Getting a degree in engineering from an extremely male dominated college was a challenge
My entry into the automotive world was just by chance. After my graduation in Electrical Engineering and Post Graduation in Electronics, I was looking for a position in R&D/Instrumentation applications. One of my friends directed me to an advertisement of ARAI (Automotive Research Association of India) for positions of Project/Trainee Engineers. I applied for the position and the rest is history!
Nothing was easy for a fresher like me, to establish into a typical male oriented work setting. The struggle had multiple dimensions and with sheer determination, supportive family and good bosses, I was able to carve a niche for myself. The job demanded different skills and competencies, which I acquired from time to time. I prepared myself well by keeping ahead of time to take new and higher roles as opportunities opened up on the vast canvas of automotive technology, management and finally, leadership. My gender mattered no more in the otherwise a very competitive environment!
How do you see the current status of the Indian automotive industry in terms of gender inclusiveness?
For sustainable and comprehensive growth, modern organisations have adopted D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) as a core value. The women workforce is increasingly being considered as equally capable and committed. With the changing job profiles, high level of automation, global engineering services, automotive has no more remained restrictive for women. Encouraging changes in workplace policies, facilities and opportunities are opening up.
It is heartening to see many shop floors, design offices, testing labs and driver seats being occupied by capable women! At entry level and mid-management level, women are strongly competing however, there is a big void at boardrooms and leadership positions. The trends of diversity are encouraging but there is still a long way to go. It will take a few more years for women to take that confident plunge.
The challenges at this moment are to find the right female candidates for taking up key positions in a corporate ladder.
The theme for this year’s international women’s day is “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality”. What does this mean to the automotive industry?
Automotive is today at the cusp of digitalisation, be it manufacturing, R&D, supply chain, and of course the vehicle controls themselves. It is already in great search of right talent in developing technologies CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Sustainable and Electric). Women who are known to have more keenness to soft engineering, simulation, reliability engineering, electrics and controls, data and informatics, AI and such have a great potential now.
The theme (“DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality”) itself underlines the significance of access of technology and innovation to women across the globe and India is no exception.
Could you please tell us about your experience at ARAI?
With the humble beginning as Trainee Engineer in 1983, I rose through the ranks to become in 2014 the first Woman Director (CEO) of ARAI, the prestigious National Institute. The journey was eventful, exciting, and very fulfilling. During my career I had the opportunity to work with some excellent bosses, motivated teams and world class technologies. I was also fortunate to receive national and international assignments/projects from a very early part of my career. It helped greatly in widening my horizon, vision and also aspirations!
During the course of my career, I handled technical, management and subsequently leadership roles within the organisation as well as at national/international level. I quickly learnt to overcome gender issues, biases and hurdles with my strong commitment to the organisation and the roles that I handled from time to time. In troubled waters, my family became my strong anchor and my ethics and values, the beacon light!
I must also highlight that I never did allow my professional goals and direction to drift away from organisational and national goals. To a large extent, when I started taking technical leadership roles, I influenced the strategic goals of the organisation to address sustainable transportation, green mobility, and road safety.
Would you be willing to provide us with a detailed account of your time and involvement at SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers India)?
SAE India is a professional body having headquarters at Chennai. We operate through 4 sections (North, West, South and Bengaluru) to address the needs of mobility sectors in the regions.
SAE is a society established about 26 years ago and has a membership of more than 50000, which includes students, faculty and engineering professionals. SAE has a rich pool of resources spread in small pockets across the country. My goal as President (during 2021-23) was to bring them together and consolidate their expertise as part of the common platform. SAE thus was enabled to take the lead in co-developing more of the new standards, algorithms, etc. along with its cohort in the areas of autonomous driving and E-mobility. I also aimed to take SAE to the new heights of professional thought leadership in the automotive domain.
I am proud of my SAE experience of 25+ years which has taught me the lessons of organisational leadership through leading and volunteering positions within regional, state, national, and international level events. Therefore, I strived to bring my superpower towards empowering women and enable them to take up similar active and challenging roles within the SAE community as well as in their own employment.
Please share your thoughts on Green Mobility. How can government initiatives like PLIs help propel the transition to green mobility?
India is a highly cost sensitive market. For consumers, the economy has the highest priority. Emission and Safety are not consumer demands. Hence the Government has to strongly regulate these aspects. Green mobility solutions therefore are more dependent on how the regulations evolve in controlling the conventional ICE vehicles.
Emission and fuel efficiency regulations are progressively being tightened and already much has been achieved. Towards carbon neutral transportation, deep penetration of green electricity and green hydrogen in transportation would be the key now.
Schemes like PLI are aimed at developing local manufacturing capabilities including critical systems like batteries, electric motors, controllers, power electronics and such. For EV manufacturing in India to become globally competitive, some actions like developing consortium approaches in material development, cell manufacturing, developing common vehicle platforms, consolidating sourcing, etc. would be very essential. Indian transportation has certain peculiarities: driving pattern (mix of urban, semi-urban, rural), complex duty cycle, varied environmental conditions, lack of standardised road infrastructure, etc.
EV manufacturers must address these appropriately in order to develop sustainable green technologies. Any concerted effort would thus take a few years for the products to stabilise and successfully activate the carbon neutrality goals in a systematic manner, rather than just pushing the targets.
Even though the concept of electric vehicles has been around for a while, India is now making a shift to embrace it. What measures is the Indian government taking to support this transition, and how can EV manufacturers reach the goal of producing 100% electric vehicles by 2030?
In my view, our focus should clearly be on public transportation (taxis, buses, and rickshaws). Creating and more importantly, maintaining green, efficient and affordable urban mobility solutions must be the top priority, not just for the Central or State government but also the city planners and civic bodies. The question is not whether manufacturers will reach the goal of electrification, but whether the customers, including Government authorities, are ready to take up the challenge for creating requisite charging infrastructure, phase out old, polluting vehicles and also create seamless last/first mile connectivity for the EV based public transportation network.
In the personal mobility segment, 2 wheelers EVs are already showing very promising growth rates. With relatively simple charging options and favourable TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) calculations have resulted in easy adoption by Indian consumers to electric bikes and scooters.
Another potential shift is electric utility vehicles such as small cargo and delivery vans, public utility vehicles and special purpose vehicles.
Passenger cars would take more time for reaching full electrification targets on account of cost parity as well as logistics limitation for long distance operations.
With the recent discovery of a 5.9mln tonne Lithium deposit in India, the prospects for the country’s transition to clean energy and increased adoption of EVs are looking promising. As an industry expert, how do you view this development?
Efficiently and economically extracting Lithium from such newly discovered deposits would be technically as well as physically challenging. While availability of such reserves puts India in a very promising situation, our target would be to achieve overall self-sufficiency in all
types of energy requirements, not just to meet our electric transportation targets.
A comprehensive green energy transition also includes greater focus on green hydrogen production and utilisation. Electric Vehicle development plans are therefore dependent on how energy management is handled in the next 2 decades.
Effective biofuel utilisation in transportation is another major step towards better energy management for a country like us, which has great potential for bio-waste generation and energy recovery.
How would you assess India’s automotive testing and validation capabilities? What can be done to improve India’s automotive testing and validation capabilities so that it is on par with its foreign counterparts?
Testing and validation requirements of the industry are quite widespread. Products that range from small components, assemblies (eg seats, lighting systems, etc) and finally complete vehicles, require very specific testing tools.
Most of the manufacturers have established their own specific T&V facilities to support entire development. When it comes to government funded centralised facilities, they are established with very reputed organisations like ARAI. Such comprehensive facilities cover important and complex testing and homologation subjects like active and passive safety, NVH, EMI/EMC, exhaust emissions, powertrain/engine testing, materials testing and many more.
These labs are equipped with world class facilities as well as skilled manpower. Extensive development and research projects are carried out specifically for the industry. In addition, these facilities are utilised for mandatory testing and certification of components and vehicles as per CMVR on behalf of Government of India. In fact, with a high calibre of services, these labs also are utilised for global development projects.
The testing and validation carried out in such labs also generate an invaluable data base, which is essential for developing national standards and regulations related to safety, emissions, fuel efficiency, etc. Thus with such a strategic significance, the Government has established strong control on the quality and operations of public funded organisations.
In those instances, where scaling up of certain facilities is required, some industry funded facilities are also created. Several IITs and Engineering colleges are also coming up with their plans of creating EV related capabilities to support the industry need.
Could you provide us with an overview of the Bharat NCAP (Bharat New Car Assessment Programme)?
To put in simple words, Bharat NCAP is a voluntary safety star rating scheme for the passenger car segment. It is similar to the global NCAP programme but specifically addresses Indian conditions and priority areas.
In addition to the mandatory crash compatibility and other safety standards, this scheme aims to provide critical safety ratings (on the scale of 1 to 5) of various vehicle models to the Indian customers and other stakeholders so that they can make informed decisions. The safety rating is arrived at by collective performance evaluation of various safety features (such as airbags, seat belt reminders, ABS, crash worthiness, pedestrian protection, etc.) that are available on the vehicles.
Safety rating schemes are often over and above the mandatory safety fitments on the vehicles and such schemes are aimed at increasing customer awareness towards vehicular safety and thereby enhancing the demand for safer vehicles.
What are your thoughts on Budget 2023 and its implications for the automotive industry?
Focus on green technologies is one of the aspects that stands out in the 2023 budget in my view. The provisions like reduced import duties for machinery and capital goods for EV battery manufacturing, focus on green hydrogen production and PLI scheme are expected to have a positive impact on green technology development.