Driving buses safely into the future

Driving buses safely into the future

There is one brand which has grown with the improving road and highway infrastructure, a brand that poured new meaning into the urn of bus travel, a brand that bus tour operators vouch for, and a brand that is synonymous with safe bus travel in India – and that brand would be Sweden’s Volvo Buses.

Ever since setting shop in India over 16 years ago, Volvo Buses has revolutionised bus travel in India, once seen as ‘poor man’s transport’ with little or no glamour. Thanks to Volvo and its European heritage, the humble bus evolved as an apt travel solution which was affordable, convenient, comfortable, and above all, safe.

Sharing vignettes of cracking the Indian bus puzzle, Volvo Buses Managing Director (South Asia) VRV Sriprasad says, “What made us unique was, for the first time in India, we brought a real bus chassis. Otherwise, what we had as a passenger vehicle was a truck chassis modified or adapted with a body built on it, and passed off as a bus.”

“We were the first true bus chassis in the country, and we had very stringent norms for body-building. Safety and comfort are integral to our values,” he adds. At a time when operators in India plied heavy-guzzling, smoke-puffing ‘unstable’ machines on the road, Volvo’s first offering in India was a 12-metre inter-city coach, built on a twin-axle bus chassis.    

Towards higher bus standards

“Many people in this country said, it’s just not possible for a Volvo bus to be in India. We were talking about technology unseen on Indian roads – style, comfort, performance, finish and a safety level which were unheard of. More than anything else, was our price-point (over three times higher than a regular bus). But we believed that this country would eventually graduate to appreciating the higher standards we offered, and it was inevitable for road transport to improve,” Sriprasad says.

From the beginning, Volvo Buses’ resolve has involved the benefit and long-term success of its customers. Hence, many progressive operators such as Sharma Travels, VRL, SRS and Durgamba placed orders for its buses. On its part, Volvo explained to them the entire operating cost, and educated them on the importance of the overall lifecycle cost of the product. Until then, only the transactional price (including for buses) was the invoice value.

“With life cycle of the product, we clearly could convince them that ‘you aren’t looking at a 3-5 lakh km life cycle of a bus’. We are talking about 1 million km-plus,” Sriprasad says, adding that with renewed productivity and efficient cost management in the long run, end-customers would ultimately benefit.

The approach resulted in better turnarounds. Passengers paid an increased fare, but experienced lesser travel time and aircraft-like comfort with air suspension and reclining seats. Gradually, buses began to be favoured by families, senior citizens and lone female travelers, who found a Volvo bus to be an affordable and reliable option, against expensive air fares and long-waitlisted train tickets.

Subsequently, operators across went in large volumes for Volvo Buses, and the company brought in the multi-axle offering in 2008. Then more recently in 2014, Volvo introduced its longest bus – a multi-axle 14.5-metre vehicle. The company also became a much sought-after brand for STUs (State Transport Utilities) and city bus utilities such as BMTC.

Driving farther

Today, Volvo’s offerings can be broadly categorised under two heads – City Buses, which includes the Volvo 8400 and Volvo Hybrid; and the long-distance intercity Coaches, which includes the Volvo 9400 range. Till date, the company has put over 6,000 buses on Indian roads.

Explaining about the importance that Volvo has laid on offering cutting-edge city buses as a boon to urbanisation, Sriprasad says, “Over the years, we have been conscious about city transport. With the city becoming extremely congested and more people having to travel longer distances to get to work and back, we saw the need for quality city buses, which we introduced in 2006. We worked with progressive city corporations and STUs, and had our initial success with our home city Bengaluru itself.” Today, Volvo has more than 1,600 city buses helping 36 Indian cities with their passenger commute and city transportation. Almost half of them are in Bengaluru. In all, Volvo has around 200 customers, including many small fleet operators. The major customers number between 15 and 20.

According to the Autobei Consulting Group’s Indian Bus Market Strategy Analysis 2017, the Indian bus industry volume touched over 1 lakh units in FY2017 (see chart). At a broader level, the industry is defined in three categories - premium/luxury, value-plus and low-cost. The size of the premium bus category currently is around 2% of the total bus market, and Volvo leads this category with a segment share of nearly 60%, competing with Scania and Mercedes-Benz.

Volvo’s success today can be traced to its inception in Bengaluru in the late 1990s. The Volvo Group, which operates Volvo Buses, Volvo Trucks, Volvo CE and Volvo Penta, has invested an overall sum of Rs 1,000 crore in Bengaluru, while in the last couple of years itself, it has invested Rs 300 crore. This involves the sprawling facility at Hoskote, on the outskirts of Bengaluru, which also houses the plant that manufactures buses, apart from the premises also being shared by trucks and construction equipment entities.

DH visited the ‘Make in India’ bus factory and learnt that it is equipped to roll out at least four buses a day. And with scalable capacity, there is scope for night shifts as well. The current capacity, however, is 1,200 buses.

The company is also carrying out exports from Bengaluru to several markets worldwide. “We started with Asian countries, and then stepped it up three years ago by exporting to South Africa. From last year, we are exporting to Europe too. Overall exports so far would be 100-150 buses in all the markets,” he informs.

Safety and innovations

Volvo buses are the epitome of high-tech innovation that have made them popular across the globe. The company spearheads the journey of buses into the future, embedding elements of safety and efficiency.

The company’s engineering team in Bengaluru is developing adaptations for the Indian market, while all global innovations and technologies do get reflected on buses here. Elucidating with an example, Sriprasad says, “A couple of years back, we started the electromobility drive, and we always have been articulating that diesel would continue to be one of the best options. But given the environmental needs for city applications, we set some interim steps that we would work on diesel, electric hybrid, and finally, a pure electric. In the past few years, we’ve put around 3,500 hybrid buses on roads globally.” The company also has two of its hybrids being deployed at Navi Mumbai.

On the safety front, all of Volvo’s buses come with disk brakes, hill-hold, ESP and ESC, along with ABS, apart from other features. Some buses also have chemical toilets to suit the elderly and women. Also as a policy, for the last 18 years, the Volvo Group has trained over 60,000 drivers (including truck and bus) at a dedicated training centre on the Hoskote premises.

From the shortest routes in Bengaluru to ultra-long circuits between states and regions in India, Volvo buses carry passengers safely and reliably, much the glee of operators. “Ultimately,” concludes Shriprasad, “Everything that we design about the vehicle is keeping in mind the passenger’s needs, safety and comfort.”

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