How far is the country from the future of mobility? – Challenges in designing autonomous cars for India
A technological revolution always happens when it is accompanied by changes in and around the entire ecosystem. It is this environment which triggers innovations across the companies and helps create guidelines for the newly formed setup. Likewise disruption created by introduction of autonomous cars is not solely an evolution of traditional cars but in fact it stands to revolutionize various other sectors in the process.
An autonomous car is an intelligent thinking vehicle running on four wheels with capabilities to connect with the outside world. It should not be confused with a connected car as the latter only supplies information to the driver using connectivity technologies such as 3G or 4G LTE. It lacks the decision making senses, while the former is self driven and does not require a human to control it. Autonomous cars engage sophisticated technologies like AI, big data, sensory inputs and connectivity to take decisions on behalf of humans on board. Such technologies deploy complex algorithms and reasoning concepts against physical driving conditions to infuse human-like decision making skills into these vehicles.
Although under specific test areas and driving conditions, cars in California, Texas, Arizona are already driving themselves and self-driving taxis have been already deployed in Singapore and Pittsburgh, USA but Indian roads may be far from adopting this transformation. It is just a matter of a few more years before self-driving cars become mainstream in developed economies but what about developing countries like India?
From making drastic changes to the infrastructure to changes in traffic systems, and data handling and processing systems, India needs to undergo huge transformation and has a long list of hurdles to deal with. India’s transport minister has gone on record stating that 30% of driving licenses in the country are bogus; pointing towards the need for improvements in the existing system . Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and CEO, considers Indian roads, the last place for self-driving cars.
For an autonomous car it is hard to map the traffic on Indian roads. The lack of lane discipline coupled by traffic conditions and a large number of two-wheelers on roads present certain challenges. Besides increased costs and privacy concerns, the additional risks of security can lead to reduced business interests in this realm. In a country like India, looking at such scientific marvel would mean managing the issues of large workforce that either lack the required skill set or need re-skilling as per digital reforms. Under the present conditions of potholes, obstructions, poorly developed roads and traffic diversions, autonomous vehicle technology is far from implementation. The vehicles would not only have to handle extreme road conditions but would also need to deal with other cars that do not always obey traffic rules.
A point to ponder here is that neither automakers nor telecom providers can realize the ‘autonomous car’ dream alone, it will instead take a collective effort of the industry, government and regulatory authorities and the community. Although the country can be a hub for technology development, it would still take decades for the country roads to get ready for self driven cars, to change the way people move, socialize and conduct businesses.
The technology enthusiasts are always hungry for newer technological evolutions. Indian automotive veterans are teaming up with auto start-ups to make driverless cars a reality on Indian roads. “In order to promote innovation and research and development in the fields of vehicular engineering, mechanically propelled vehicles, and transportation in general, the central government may exempt certain types of mechanically propelled vehicles from the application of the provisions of this Act.” – A clause in The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016. On clearance, India would be capable to test any innovation across the transport industry.
With all the simultaneous efforts and advancements, we might see an autonomous car on the country roads but not any sooner than five to six years. However, for India, steering a billion minds away from manual to automation requires a strategic design shift which is culturally deep rooted as well as technologically innovative. The road to automation is dotted not just with potholes but also with an unpredictable socio-cultural landscape where bullock carts, cycles, buses, cars, and blissfully resting cows share the same lane space.
Consequently, the question is not whether we are ready for automation, but can automation handle the complexities of the Indian road? If automation design gets as intuitive as the Indian driver, then yes, we are truly ready for the transformative journey!
Vinod Vasudevan, Senior Architect, Automotive