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Autonomous cars in India: a developing challenge

AW Megatrends virtual summit: 'The View From Asia: Session 1' - the prospects for the self-driving car in Asia

The Indian market presents many challenges and implications for the development of the autonomous car and the low data coverage in the region has severely affected the enablement of connected car infrastructure.

In a webinar hosted by Automotive World Megatrends on 25 March 2014, entitled ‘The View From Asia: Session 1 – Self-Driving Car Outlook 2014‘, Sirish Batchu, General Manager, Head of Infotronics Technology at Mahindra & Mahindra, discussed the prospects for the self-driving car in Asia.

57% of global consumers trust driverless cars – and this is even more the case in emerging markets such as India. Despite requirements of a few more developments in India before people are able to drive automated cars in a legal manner, Batchu referenced the Google car which defined what is next in autonomous transportation and how an autonomous car will look and perform.

The testing of autonomous cars has already begun in the US state of Nevada, but the Indian market, among most others, is far from introducing or accepting a fully autonomous car, and instead is currently only able to offer simpler levels of autonomy such as cruise control and a developing V2V system, with the driver still expected to remain in control of the vehicle at all times.

Benefits and challenges

Batchu spoke about the possible benefits of autonomous cars to India, including the reduction of driver stress, increased safety, reduced pollution, and the possibility of increased road capacity. However, in the same vein, the autonomous car brings about various challenges for the Indian market. “India is a very dynamic country and there are all sorts of challenges to the autonomous car,” said Batchu. These challenges include increased costs, along with additional risks such as security and privacy concerns. Batchu continued, “This could also lead to reduced employment and business activity, as a fall in public transport would undoubtedly be seen.”

An automated vehicle in India would bring with it many challenges but it’s not just the vehicle that needs to be considered – vehicle infrastructure would have to be in place first. Batchu said, “This not only puts emphasis on the development of the vehicle but the vehicle infrastructure outside the car will need to deal with the vast amount of information provided by the car and cater to its demands.”

Vehicles would need to be able to handle the extreme conditions on Indian roads such as avoiding major potholes, animals that share the roads with cars, other cars that do not always obey traffic signals, and dealing with the vast number of cars on the roads.

Despite these challenges, Batchu describes India as a land of a billion possibilities with a billion plus population, and Mahindra has recently begun its mission towards a culture of innovation in India through Rise Prize, a US$1m incentive for solutions for driverless cars in India. “We see much potential for autonomous cars in India and our recent Rise Prize idea is a first step in a direction of India as a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Batchu.

Batchu presented the benefits and challenges of introducing automated vehicles into India
Batchu presented the benefits and challenges of introducing automated vehicles into India

Adapting for the Indian market

However, more challenges present themselves when considering the notion of just bringing the developing automated car technology into India, as the car and its infrastructure would have to adapt to the country’s specific challenges. Batchu said, “India provides a disruptive innovation for the automated car as it needs a lot more adaption in India and basically a completely different thinking than automated cars elsewhere in the world to deal with our diverse conditions.”

Batchu also mentioned how India’s slow-moving legislation would present a challenge for the autonomous car, as it is “quite behind in terms of imposing expected traffic rules.” He continued, “Autonomous vehicles would need special legislation and permission. In general government is one step behind and even if the technology was there, it would be moving far faster than legislation.” Despite this, Batchu is hopeful that the country’s government will start making positive steps towards autonomous technology in the near future, saying, “Legislation is behind but lots of positive involvement between government and industry is happening. I’m sure the government will step up and a lot more action will be done given the benefits of autonomous cars.”

Batchu spoke about the predicted date for widespread autonomy in India
Batchu spoke about the predicted date for widespread autonomy in India

User perspective

Despite these extreme conditions offering many obstacles to the development of autonomous vehicles in India, the conditions are responsible for the willingness of people living in India to accept autonomous vehicles, unlike other markets which may not be as willing to trust the technology. Batchu said, “Interestingly, in developing countries there is a lot more willingness to use automated vehicles because of the fear of driving in such traffic conditions and it’s not very far away that there will be many more vehicles running on their own in the streets around us.”

Although scepticism surrounding autonomous vehicles is still present around the world, Batchu referenced a recent survey carried out by IHS, which asked the Indian market when they expect driverless cars to be available in mass production. Batchu said, “We can see that it is not very far away… the survey shows that by 2021, people in India expect them to be available in mass.”

Batchu continued, “As more exposure and developments are forming, a lot more people are becoming more familiar and accepting of the technology. It’s the same as any new technology, as soon as the barriers are broken, acceptance happens.”

However, there are concerns that an attempt to bring in an autonomous car allows too many leap frog jumps for India considering that basic safety essentials, such as crash testing, are only just starting in the country. However, Batchu explained, “When we talk of the connected car, we look at how we can harness the power of the mobile phone and use this as a backbone to make the vehicle connected and ultimately a safer environment for the driver.”

Low data coverage has so far affected the development of a connected car transport system in India, but Vodafone has recently become the first telecom service provider to offer a Machine to Machine (M2M) platform in India, entering into a strategic technology partnership with Mahindra Group’s electric vehicle manufacturing subsidiary, Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles. This deal will see Vodafone Machine-to-Machine (M2M) solutions provide communication services for the Mahindra Reva e2o electric car, the first collaboration of its kind in India.

As an OEM, Mahindra sees working with telematics companies as an important step in making sure that cars can talk to each other and the grid, as well as developing the currently unreliable data coverage in India. The slow data coverage is one of the main reasons behind slow vehicle technology developments so far in the country, but Batchu said, “We are working with companies such as Vodafone to provide a dedicated M2M platform. As more and more connected solutions appear, the safer the cars will be.”

Rachel Boagey 

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