If Driverless Tech Can Crack India, It’ll Work Anywhere

The governments of most countries around the world are willing, if not necessarily eager, to aid in the development of advanced-level assisted driving.

Yet, India is not ‘most countries’.  In mid-2017, the country’s transportation minister Nitin Gadkari said bluntly that his government “will not allow driverless cars in India.” Why? “We are not going to promote any technology or policy that will render people jobless.”

This categorically states the government’s worry. Driving is not only a profession for a many of India’s nearly 1.4Bn people, it also offers a potentially quick route to job growth. Compared to other large countries, Indian unemployment is relatively high at over 6%. Meanwhile, nationwide automobile density is comparatively low, at 22 vehicles per 1,000 people, according to recent government figures. Even a modest increase in the number of cars on the road can have a catalyzing effect on the jobless rate.

“There is a huge shortage of 2.2M drivers,” in the country, says Lalit Katare, an analyst for Allied Market Research, paraphrasing another utterance from Gadkari. “Here lies a potential opportunity to generate a livelihood for job seekers.” So, it’s no wonder that the government is more interested in boosting employment rolls than advancing vehicle technology.

However, that sure isn’t stopping entrepreneurial Indians from chasing the autonomous dream. Hundreds of companies have sprung up around the country to develop advanced-level solutions in every imaginable aspect of assisted driving. This is because, despite the government’s concentration on employment, these systems are badly needed in an environment that is often more hazardous than in other countries. “Accident occurrence and casualties are high in third world countries, including India,” said Pinaki Laskar. “What we need is technology support to drivers for safe driving. This is the crux of the matter.”

Laskar is the founder and CEO of the colorfully named FishEyeBox, a sprawling tech company that concentrates on assisted and autonomous driving solutions. The company doesn’t lack for ambition – it states boldly that it’s “working on an all-in-one solution for an Intelligent Drive System.” It is operating in a market that has a great many quirks not found elsewhere. “Indian road infrastructure has many variable parameters unlike in Western countries which have well developed infrastructures,” said Laskar. “I mean the traffic behavior, driving interactions, etc. are totally different from some other places.”

Bhasker Canagaradjou, of Ipsos Business Consulting put the problem somewhat less diplomatically, saying that the time might not be right for the country to zoom towards autonomy. “India is still not ready for fully autonomous vehicles owing to various issues from erratic driving behavior, the state of traffic and lane discipline, and infrastructure issues.”

Yet, the country’s relationship with the automobile is changing rapidly and the resultant atmosphere is conducive to the development of next-level driving solutions. “The Indian market is currently in a transformation phase,” said Katare. “The all-time favorites – diesel vehicles – are on the verge of extinction, similarly alternative-fuel vehicles are on the list for procurement.”

This provides twin opportunities for designers of cutting-edge assisted driving solutions. First, in an environment of change, both consumers and regulators are more accepting of the new and innovative, so it can be relatively easier for automakers and/or solutions providers to get such systems on the road. Secondly, since many of those alt-fuel vehicles are yet to be constructed, they can be crafted with certain assisted-driving functionalities installed at the outset.

It’s little wonder that there is an army of companies and individuals in this huge market working hard to develop these technologies. Of course, as with other large countries India is on the radar of some of the more powerful global players in the assisted/autonomous space; even a small piece of this pie can draw millions of dollars or euros in revenue.

Canagaradjou ticked off a list of notable foreign companies that have set up camp in the country. “Players like Denso, Intel, STM etc. are doing chip-related work in Indian R&D centers.” Although many aspects of Indian vehicle infrastructure and culture are unique to the world, at least some of this work should be applicable on a semi-universal basis. “Intel is currently studying [India’s] traffic patterns, roadside behavior and infrastructure,” added Canagaradjou. “The company is planning to develop algorithms based on the data collected, which could be used to create a model for automated vehicles in other markets like Africa, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.”

Ultimately, then, no matter what a transport minister or other government official might say, assisted driving is advancing in India. It’s possible that solutions developed inside the country could even lead the way for the rest of the world. After all, said Laskar: “If a system becomes intelligent enough to drive autonomously in a super-complex driving environment like Indian roads, I believe it will be the smartest AI solution ever developed.”

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