Tata Ace electric vehicle (EV) development

The Tata Ace EV programme followed the momentum created by the Tata Vista EV development and was focused on the delivery of a 0.75t light commercial electric vehicle for the UK market. This was seen as a niche product for the performance required from a last-mile delivery EV vehicle at a reasonable price, which was to benefit from the UK Government’s EV subsidy incentive.

Project brief

There was, at the time, a growing market for light commercial vehicles (LCVs) in Europe supported by Government initiatives.

Small LCVs are particularly suited to pure electric propulsion, and TMETC’s development of an electric commercial vehicle was to be used as part of a neighbourhood EVs portfolio. The vehicle was to be capable of a maximum speed of 25mph and a range of 30 miles, based on a Tata Ace EV 0.75t platform, a hugely popular vehicle in India since its launch in 2006.

TMETC was also planning to develop the manufacturing base and skills required to manufacture EVs in low volume series production in the UK.

Engineering challenges

The Tata Ace diesel light truck was specifically designed for the Indian market and obviously met its target customers’ aspirations; since its launch in 2006, it has created a new sector within the Indian commercial vehicle market that it has consistently dominated.

However, the requirements of the Indian domestic market and that of the UK EV market are radically different. This required close working between TMETC and its Indian production colleagues to ensure that the donor vehicles would be built to relevant European specification and quality standards.

TMETC was also challenged to develop the manufacturing base and essential skills required to manufacture electric vehicles in low volume series production in the UK.

Innovative solutions

TMETC had been involved in vehicle design and development, both for conventional ICE and EVs, for many years but had not previously been involved in the production (manufacture and assembly) of such products. Therefore, TMETC’s manufacturing engineers were tasked with designing, from a clean sheet of paper, a new low volume EV manufacturing facility.

A property was acquired in Coventry and the team set about designing the production line, the special equipments and fixtures required to build EVs, together with the entire build and assembly process to safety standards that were still being written, as there was very little or no prior experience of such facilities in the automotive industry as a whole.

The solution to vehicle development resulted in using ‘glider’ vehicles to which the UK EV manufacturing facility would add the electric drivetrain and energy storage components. Although the battery system in the Ace EV was to be of the traditional lead acid type rather than high tech Li-ion, the build processes had to be created recognising the safety issues or working with charged electrical components.

While the manufacturing engineers were busy with developing and commissioning the build facility, TMETC’s electrical engineering team set about specifying and sourcing the drivetrain components from new suppliers. This phase was followed by the development of engineering FMEAs that addressed the demands of an EV, resulting in a vehicle that was sale ready.

Having a production facility closely situated to the engineering technical centre allowed close collaboration between the engineering and manufacturing teams as the vehicle was readied for production.

Project outcomes

The Tata Ace was adapted successfully and the new Tata Ace EV was launched into the UK market in 2012 in small numbers. With the new low volume production facility commissioned, the first build vehicles were completed and extensive market testing through a demonstration programme with end users was delivered.

However, a combination of changes in Government incentives, upon which the business case for the Tata Ace EV was built, and a sluggish take up of EV by the industry as a whole compared to initial forecasts, resulted in Tata Motors deciding to discontinue any further supplies of the Tata Ace EV into the market.

The challenge of developing the build facility, sourcing components from new suppliers, and developing and completing the test plan so that a fully compliant Ace EV could roll off the new production line ready to be handed over to end users were newly developed capabilities to TMETC’s growing skill base.