In a country like India, where automobiles are already competing for space with rickshaws, motorcyclists, a dozen trucks at a time and several million people, the potential of self-driving cars seems like a solution.
At least, that’s what innovators and the best brains at Infosys thought when they unveiled their first self-driving golf cart. The country’s government, however, was less amused. Instead of a solution, they saw another legal liability and a restructuring nightmare.
So, who’s got it right? And what opportunities could a self-driving wave mean for the country?
The ‘Official’ Unveiling
For the last two years, the country has been abuzz with an Infosys initiative into autonomous driving solutions. After Vishal Sikka, the CEO of Infosys made a memorable entrance to a media briefing on the company in July 2016 in a driverless golf cart, the country began to contemplate whether artificial intelligence was something that everyone could look forward to in the future.
While the company demonstrated this tongue-in-cheek stunt to underscore Infosys’s more significant AI technology innovations and to help create a ‘test bed’ for these new and emerging solutions, the inadvertent unveiling set off a firestorm of opinion, potential and contemplation.
Are autonomous cars, capable of stopping before a fatal impact or merely avoiding the obstacle by going around it, a solution for India’s chaotic roadways?
While this debate was unintentional, Sikka’s media briefing on the company’s quarterly results showed that 10% of the company’s revenues stemmed from ‘New Service & Software’, demonstrating that these high-growth areas are profitable and are beginning to gain traction in focus.
The autonomous golf cart was the proof of that pudding and the cherry on the proverbial cake.
Developed at the Infosys Mysore campus and unveiled there as well, the autonomous golf cart was laden with sensors that are always feeding back information about the environment, navigating without human input and making decisions.
Advanced control systems help to steer the vehicle and identify the best navigation paths with the least number of obstacles or road signage.
Sikka calls the autonomous golf cart technology that rests on the ‘dual forces of automation and innovation’ and, without a doubt, since its unveiling, the driverless golf cart has spurred other instances of autonomous cars.
Of further development towards commercialisation and market adoption, Seshu Bhagavathula, the CTO of Product Development at commercial vehicle maker Ashok Leyland says that there now needs to be a focus on safety features.
‘Automatic or assisted brakes, assisted parking, adaptive engine mapping, etc. will see a faster adoption,’ he says. ‘They will start with simple ‘driver warning systems’ and will gradually move to advanced ‘driver assistance systems’ over the coming years.’ (Factor Daily)
Automobile automation, however, must walk before it runs. Before heading towards full autonomy, there must first be a shift towards ‘Advanced Driver Assistance Systems’ or ADAS.
While the driverless golf cart is undoubtedly novel, it’s not the only example of driverless technology and vehicles. Indeed, it could very well be considered the new intra-country race arms of the AI era, as SUV-to-tractor maker Mahindra demoed its driverless tractor in September 2017, Ambani of Reliance Industries ‘drove’ his children in an autonomous shuttle, and group chairman of Tata group of companies Cyrus Mistry was given a demo of the first fully autonomous bus.
But there are smaller players in the innovation sphere stepping up their efforts into research and development. Dr Roshy John, a robotics professional, worked on a Tata Nano which uses laser scanners instead of sensors and includes pedal assistance, 3D simulation and driver psychology to help make decisions. The result: An autonomous model that can differentiate between static and dynamic vehicles.
Similar initiatives and autonomous car challenges are coming out of IIT-Bombay, the Indian Institute for Technology, which brings together the country’s best brains in Science-Tech-Engineering-Mathematics fields (or ‘STEM’, for short).
Known as ‘SeDriCa‘ (short for ‘self-driving car’), the set of cardboard boxes atop three wheels and a beacon light is the brainchild of IIT-Bombay students Ankit Sharma and Rishabh Choudhary.
SeDriCa, which measures two feet by three feet, has an onboard GPS device, an inertial measurement unit that calculates motion and wheel encoders that track movement. A vision system on the vehicle is used to detect the lanes and LiDAR, a remote sensing technology that uses laser light, is employed to steer clear of static obstacles. All the data from these devices is collected and analysed by a set of algorithms to guide the vehicle along the required route (Quartz).
Working at the Unmesh Mashruwala Innovation Cell, this ungainly but smart driverless car made for ‘Indian streets’ has been in the works since 2011.
These efforts are being coordinated across campuses in Delhi and Kanpur. The Bombay team is now working to adapt the SeDriCa — already ranked fourth out of 36 teams from across the world at the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition at Oakland University — for the Driverless Car
Challenge of the Rise Prize run by Mahindra Group.
There’s a considerable bid to get this technology out of test phases and on the road, as quickly as possible. But physical obstacles are not the only things self-driving cars will have to face in India.
The Unofficial Official Reason for Banning
Hang on a moment: The Indian ban on self-driving cars might be a good thing (for now).
Yes, that’s right, while the Indian government has said ‘no’ to self-driving cars, 85% of its public agree that self-driving vehicles are desirable.
The government’s official position is that self-driving cars are a direct threat to employment.
But the temporary ban could grant innovators in the ’emerging technologies’ fields something even more useful: time.
While it would give automotive teams a chance to focus on developing self-driving cars, other related technologists could concentrate on bringing together the bits and pieces required for creating the data and connectivity infrastructure to support autonomous vehicles.
This network would have to be consistently reliable, having backups for backups, making it immune to power failures.
‘Smart cities’, as they’re known, will require an ‘intelligent’ level of traffic lights, signs and parking stations as well as sensors across roads.
What’s even more promising is the tangentially-related priority that India has (especially after Delhi recently earned the distinction of being the most polluted place on Earth, hitting an air quality index of worse than 999).
By 2030, India is proposing shifting to only electric vehicles on its roads. As the second-fastest growing car market after China, this seems to provide an incentive for both further development and adoption of self-driving cars as well as the apparent improvements in infrastructure it would call for.
The Market Potential
Since 2016’s Infosys golf cart unveiling, all anyone can focus on right now is a question of ‘when?’ As in, when can we see this technology hitting the proverbial streets?
But the question shouldn’t be when. It should be how: How can there be a coordination of infrastructure for automation and connectivity, legal frameworks in place and features that take into account both these realities, within an Indian context?
The market’s potential for driverless cars in India comes down to speed and efficiency — not of the vehicle itself but, instead of an autonomous vehicle transportation network.
For example, consider the amount of work on driverless cars, within the IIT Delhi, Bombay and Kanpur campuses: They’re not coordinated efforts. In the same way, anticipating another generation until the full adoption of this technology in India isn’t a far cry when you consider that sheer coordination and communication across the various spheres that are involved in this could be the biggest obstacle.
And, yet, isn’t this precisely what driverless cars are meant to do? Avoid the err of human judgement and safeguard against poor decision-making?
While there is some initial resistance, India may end up following through with full adoption to fully automated vehicles sooner, rather than later, if nothing else than to jump on the global and international bandwagons of Google and Waymo.