Since April this year, Softbank backed Nuro, the autonomous robotics startup, has been delivering meals and equipment to more than 50 medical staff at temporary field hospitals in California set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apollo, China based Baidu’s autonomous vehicle platform, collaborated with Neolix, a local self-driving startup, to deliver food and supplies to the Beijing Haidian Hospital.
Autonomous driving has proved to be essential in the fight against the pandemic, easing the burden of covid-19 by transporting necessary medical supplies and food to health-care professionals and the public in infected areas and disinfecting hospitals and public surfaces to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
Restrictions on retail, dining, and everyday life during the outbreak have also increased demand for driverless deliveries and non-contact operations, both heavily relying on autonomous driving technologies.
New opportunities for the autonomous driving industry have stood out during covid and will probably accelerate its adoption.
Undoubtedly, the future of the automotive sector lies in innovation and automation. This is the reason most automotive players are now focusing on driverless/autonomous vehicles (AVs).
Several automotive players and tech giants like Uber, Daimler, Tesla and Ford are investing huge capital, and have already begun test trials in countries such as the US, Germany, Japan, and China.
As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, China is first to emerge from covid-19 imposed lockdowns thanks to its cutting-edge technology in autonomous vehicles seeing an acceleration during this time.
Its capital Beijing has granted permission to Toyota-backed Pony.ai to pick up passengers in its robotaxis. China’s Baidu has recently released 104 driverless vehicles in 17 cities across China.
US too is accelerating use of Avs. Pony.ai’s cars are delivering groceries in Irvine from local e-commerce platform Yamibuy, and are working with the City of Fremont to deliver meals to a local emergency shelter program.
Meanwhile, Softbank-backed Nuro has become the second company in California to receive a permit to operate a driverless vehicle on public roads to not just deliver groceries and food, but also prescription delivery.
Opportunity for Autonomous Vehicles in India
Mountain View, a CA-based company selected India for its automated driving solutions. It has started to gather data on traffic patterns, roadside behavior and infrastructure conditions in the country. The data collected to create algorithms could be used in India and globally to promote automated driving.
Scientists and researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and IT major Wipro have joined hands to create a driverless car for Indian conditions with a probable rollout in 2020.
However, in India, autonomous mobility till now has been rather closely related to robotic tractors rather than robotic cars. Tractor maker Escorts is developing level-2 autonomous technology, providing tractors the ability to auto-steer and leverage geo-fencing through the global positioning system (GPS).
Mahindra & Mahindra also showcased a semi-autonomous tractor and divulged plans for a fully-autonomous one in the coming years.
This might change though. Amid reports of taxi aggregators such as Uber and Ola retrenching as many as 2,000 staff, and Ola CEO declaring to employees that the future of the business is looking bleak, a shift to self-driven taxis in the age of physical distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic seems possible if not inevitable.
Challenges for AVs in India
Almost two years back, the then road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari said autonomous driving will not be allowed in India because the government is not going to promote any technology that comes at the cost of jobs.
The country has 40 lakh drivers and there is a shortage of 25 lakh drivers. Driving skills can provide employment, failing which jobs of 1 crore people would be at stake. That’s a huge reason why major foreign automotive players do not see India as a favorable market for Autonomous Vehicles.
Another key obstruction in the country for AVs is poor road and transport infrastructure that leads to most road accidents and deaths. However, these challenges have not discouraged Indian automotive players like Tata, Mahindra, and many tech startups from working on AV technology.
Indian motor vehicle rules will also be a challenge for AVs as the Indian Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 does not currently allow fully automated systems in the country. 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 for operations of AVs in India.
AVs will also pose newer and complex privacy issues. Automated cars run based on immense volume of personal data and individual preferences that need protection under the privacy laws – which currently may not be adequate given the nuances with the technology.
AVs would mean better road and transport infrastructure, town planning, network and wireless connectivity in India. Their adoption would enhance road safety and reduce road accidents, pollution and carbon emission levels, fuel consumption, road congestion, and make transportation accessible to all including disabled.
Job losses and unemployment seem to be the greatest concern to the Government of India for permitting the use of AVs in India.
However, on the contrary, this may in fact lead to generation of more skilled jobs in IT/ITES, engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, automotive, software development and related sectors in India.