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Are Indian Roads Ready For Driverless Cars?

Will the technology know how to deal with potholes and stray cows and dogs?

11/04/2017 2:06 PM IST | Updated 13/04/2017 3:08 PM IST
Reuters Photographer / Reuters

In an interview to CNBC last year, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick remarked in a lighter vein that India would be the last place on earth to get Uber's self-driving or autonomous cars.

Self-driving or autonomous cars, which rely on special sensors and powerful onboard computers to drive are already in the early stages of adoption in the developed world. In Singapore, San Francisco, Paris or many other cities in the US and Europe, sightings of a car or a bus without a driver hurtling down the streets are getting increasingly common. Many analysts predict it is just a matter of a few more years before self-driving cars will go mainstream and change the way people around the world move, socialise and conduct business.

The possibility of autonomous cars replacing clueless human drivers and making Indian traffic run smoother is certainly alluring.

Now let's get close to home and talk about India. Is our country ready to embrace the future of personal mobility? My answer to this question in the form of insights below is partly derived from my discussions with our limited partners, one of who is an affiliate of the world's largest two-wheeler manufacturer and one who develops auto components for Tesla and several other top-end auto manufacturers focusing on autonomous cars.

Firstly, India has earned a wide and well-deserved reputation for its chaotic and haphazard traffic—the source of Kalanick's claim. We don't even need to hear an American complain about our traffic as any driver in India would attest to the fact, that a majority of our motor vehicle drivers are either blissfully unaware of traffic rules or nonchalantly violate them—weaving in and out of traffic, cutting lanes at will, or stopping without an indication.

One possible reason why Indian drivers are so bad is they do not actually know how to drive. Our Union Minister for Transport has gone on record saying that as many as 30% of driving licenses held in the country are bogus. Given these facts, the possibility of autonomous cars replacing clueless human drivers and making Indian traffic run smoother is certainly alluring

After all, self-driving cars are the future. The technology industry is always hungry for advancements and for new frontiers to conquer and at the moment there is no frontier as challenging and exciting as making car transportation safer and more convenient—by taking humans out of the driver's seat. Given India's horrendous record with road accidents, autonomous car makers around the world would be tempted to look at India and a few other countries with similar chaotic driving conditions as the ultimate test for their technologies.

But how far are we from finding the Holy Grail on the streets of Delhi or Mumbai?

[O]ur poor road infrastructure combined with our unpredictable driving habits may just end up making the regulators wary of allowing self-driving cars in India.

There are no easy answers at present; but we can safely say not anytime in the near future. An autonomous car uses a powerful sensor called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), a computer vision technology for seeing the road and objects, including other vehicles, road boundaries, lanes, barriers and trees etc. around it. The LIDAR feeds data into an onboard computer that much like a human brain decides when to press the accelerator or the brake, or steer the car left or right. LIDAR is the most expensive component of an autonomous car; the most affordable ones today cost nearly $10,000 (or ₹700,000). This by definition makes these cars out of reach for most Indians.

Even though the technology industry is focusing on autonomous vehicles as the next big business opportunity, the most advanced automobile computers available today have not reached a stage when they can deal with all the problems encountered on a city road. Earlier in March, California state officials said they plan to allow testing on public roads of self-driving vehicles without human backup drivers by the end of the year. The news of what was no doubt a watershed moment for autonomous cars, was tempered by leaked documents from Uber that showed human drivers needed to take back control of a self-driving car roughly once every 0.8 miles.

Indian roads and traffic conditions are starkly different from California's. And that's an understatement! Will LIDAR be able to see big potholes and let the car swerve around them? How will it deal with a random dog, cow or sheep darting around the street, as is a fairly common occurrence on our city streets? And let's not forget that there are hardly any roads where lanes are clearly marked. And even if they are, we will find eight lanes of traffic squeezed into four. I could go on and on about the differences, but you get the point.

How will you page for the limousine once you come out of the Hyatt if you don't have a driver?

In the West, advancements in infrastructure and technology have progressed hand in hand. Roads in California are generally well marked and maintained and technologies like LIDAR only take advantage of the underlying infrastructure to modulate the direction and the speed of a car. As we will no doubt see in India, the technology cannot race ahead of poor infrastructure.

In fact, I worry that our poor road infrastructure combined with our unpredictable driving habits may just end up making the regulators wary of allowing self-driving cars in India. The concerns are not without merit; for there is a lot we as a country need to work on before letting self-driving cars on our roads.

Then there are economic factors unique to India. Given that driverless cars can be much more expensive than their conventional counterparts, they might just become a status symbol for the privileged few. In any case, the upper segments of car buyers in India typically employ a full-time driver and it remains to be seen if they will justify the additional expense of a self-driving car in terms of doing away with the driver's costs. How will you page for the limousine once you come out of the Hyatt if you don't have a driver?

All said and one, we might still see a self-driving car on Indian roads sometime in the future. But will it herald a mobility revolution in India, like in rest of the world? I wouldn't bet on that happening anytime in the next five-seven years. But when it does happen, we hope to be part of it for sure.

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