Globally autonomy is the new area of interest for large carmakers, technology companies as well as fleet service providers. Companies like Daimler, Uber, General Motors, Tesla, Audi, Waymo, Ford, Honda, Apple, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, etc. are investing significant time and money in developing Autonomous Vehicles(AVs).
In countries like US, Germany, Singapore, UK, Japan and China, testing trials are already being conducted.
While India, as the world’s fourth-largest auto market, is certainly qualified to make a paradigm shift to autonomous mobility, several intricate factors pose challenges to this possibility.
Advantages for India in AV Adoption
Autonomous Vehicles enhance road safety and reduce road accidents, pollution and carbon emission levels, fuel consumption, road congestion, and make transportation accessible to all, etc.
The design of autonomous vehicles is inherently equipped to grant flexibility, control, and comfort to the rider. The traffic jam pilot manages starting, accelerating, steering and braking. This increases efficiency and reduces fuel usage and, consequently, carbon footprints- an essential criteria in India’s current state of environmental crisis. According to a McKinsey report, autonomous cars can reduce vehicular CO2 emissions by 300 million tonnes annually.
Since the traffic jam pilot manages it all, drivers no longer need to monitor the car permanently. They can take their hands off the steering wheel and focus on any other activity. As soon as the system reaches its limits, it calls on them to take back charge of the vehicle. In this way, customers exercise full control of their time.
The real case for autonomy comes on the road safety front. It’s predicted that autonomous cars will ultimately be 20 times safer than human controlled cars. In a country like India that has the highest road fatality rates in the world on a per km basis (approaching 175,000 deaths per year), it’s quite clear that autonomous cars can be a very powerful, substantive solution. India should ultimately expect vehicle accident related deaths to drop to 5,000-10,000 per year when autonomous cars become the overwhelming majority.
With fewer associated risks, insurance premiums for car owners would go down.
Adoption of AVs would also mean better road and transport infrastructure, town planning, network and wireless connectivity in India.
As an added perk, to celebrate and accommodate the great regional diversity of India- autonomous vehicles come with a personalization feature- taking instructions from the driver in their native language and detecting it.
While there are widespread fears about job loss, adoption of AVs would actually lead to generation of more skilled jobs in areas such as IT/ITES, Engineering, Artificial Intelligence/ Robotics, Automotive and Software Development.
If all these optimistic considerations are implemented, it is safe to venture that by 2050, India’s urban mobility landscape will look vastly different than it does today.
Challenges AVs face in India
There are fundamental challenges with bringing autonomous cars to India. There is a lack of clear signage and lane markings combined with the immense difference and variety in the types of vehicles found on the roads. Combined with India’s notorious reputation for irregular traffic management, it poses a unique technical challenge when developing the necessary algorithms to power an autonomous car.
India lacks the basic infrastructure needed to make self-driving cars a reality. Its streets are pothole-ridden, narrow, and ruled by drivers who break laws—a deadly mix for autonomous vehicles.
Cost will also be a major barrier for mass adoption in a developing country like India and automakers yet do not have a clear indication of how much it would eventually cost to the Indian consumer.
Then there are social ramifications to consider. There will be significant effects on employment. In a country employing more than 15 million drivers, there’s no question that their jobs will ultimately become obsolete.
The Indian Government is apprehensive about these kind of job losses due to automation. “I have a reservation (against) driver-less cars in India,” Nitin Gadkari, India’s Union Minister for road transport and highways, said about the matter, identifying job-losses as the concern.
Government’s stand on this issue is a major reason why foreign automotive players do not view India as a favourable market for AVs.
There are also complex regulatory, legal and privacy issues that AVs will pose, that will need to be reckoned with. The Indian Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 and the rules that regulate operation of vehicles in India, do not currently allow fully automated systems. A human driver needs to be in effective control of the vehicle at all times. The laws don’t permit even testing of AVs in India.
The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2017 has proposed testing – though it is yet to see light of the day. The act will need an overhaul to allow licenses for trials, detailed and robust guidelines for safety assurance systems, and a well thought out regime for operations of AVs in India.
These challenges have however not discouraged Indian automotive players such as Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra and several tech start-ups such as Ola from working on the AV technology.
The Bottom Line
Even with varying viewpoints, most experts believe that more data collection and real-world testing is needed to make autonomous vehicles viable for the Indian setup. Before AVs become a common sight on Indian roads, the automotive players as well as the law makers should be prepared to address the complex regulatory, legal and privacy issues that AVs will pose.
Moreover, it’s essential that the government work on skills training programs so that the drivers can have a soft landing.
As we move towards a future that sees autonomous vehicles dotting the landscape, it is important to not get infatuated by only fully autonomous driving, but instead focus on how to develop and apply the most appropriate autonomous driving technologies that will help India leverage its unique skills and needs.
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