India’s Eicher Motors is launching a cheap diesel-powered pick-up truck aimed at small-business owners that doubles as a miniature power station, capable of lighting up a home during the country’s frequent electricity cuts.
The Multix, revealed by Eicher on Thursday, is the latest of a wave of initiatives by auto groups to create vehicles suitable for thriftier consumers in emerging markets.
Erratic or non-existent power supplies are one of most urgent problems India faces. More than 300m Indians have no reliable access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency.
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to bring round-the-clock power to every village in the nation by 2022, many energy experts doubt that the country’s creaking energy grid can be quickly expanded into rural areas, leaving thousands of villages reliant on distributed technologies such as solar lanterns to light their homes at night.
Retailing at Rs232,850 ($3,645), the Multix, which Eicher developed with US-based all-terrain vehicle maker Polaris Industries, converts between a passenger car, with space for a family of five, and a commercial vehicle, with storage up to 2,000 litres.
But it also includes a “power-take-off point” capable of generating up to 3 kilowatts from its diesel engine — enough to power lighting in a home or office, or run a drilling machine or an agricultural water pump.
When used as a generator, the Multix’s 12-litre fuel tank can power a small house for about 10 hours, the vehicle’s developer said.
“We have found this enormous unmet need, which is that so many people in India have terrible access to power,” said Siddhartha Lal, Eicher’s chief executive. “So this provides a back-up for your business, or even if your family is watching a Bollywood movie, which is the kind of electric car India needs.”
The car marks a departure for Mumbai-listed Eicher, which has become one of India’s fastest growing companies thanks to the success of Royal Enfield, the 120-year-old heritage brand it rescued in 1994.
Eicher relaunched the famed British motorcycles, winning over a new generation of customers and sending the group’s stock up 450 per cent over the past two years.
Thursday’s launch sees Eicher follow global auto groups such as Renault, which last month launched the ultra-cheap Kwid car, a model that the French company designed and built in India as it attempts to expand in the country’s vast and complex auto market.
But Eicher’s new model also now takes its place within a small but growing group of entirely new vehicle types dreamt up for developing nations, such as the “quadricycle” — a low-budget four-wheel commercial vehicle.
“The buses and cars you see in India are all hand-me-downs from the west [and Japan],” said Mr Lal. “But we have different requirements, so we wanted to think about things from scratch, to think what does a business owner in India need for work and family, even to keep the lights on?”
Eicher has invested Rs3.5bn ($55m) to develop the model, which will be built in a new plant in the northern state of Rajasthan, with annual capacity for 60,000 vehicles.
Many similar concept cars have failed to win over customers, not least Tata Motors’ ultra-cheap Nano, which flopped following its launch in 2009, in spite of a price tag of Rs100,000. It sold just over 21,000 in the fiscal year 2013-14.
But Mr Lal expressed confidence that the Eicher Polaris venture would appeal to India’s estimated 58m smallholder businessmen, a category that includes self-employed merchants and farmers, before expanding to other emerging markets in Asia and Africa.