Autonomous driving system won’t be a cakewalk on Indian roads

A team from the Tata conglomerate is working on a secret testing track outside Bangalore, which is being modelled on Indian roads so that an autonomous driving system suiting them can be developed.

These makeshift roads will include pedestrians darting through traffic at will, multiple lanes that merge without warning, poor signage and not to forget, stray cattle.

Conglomerates like the Tata Group and the Mahindra Group are busy working on India's role in the driverless car industry, and are supported by a slew of startups and engineering schools. The industry will stimulate $7 trillion of spending by 2050, says Intel.

India, which is all set to become the world's third-largest auto market, doesn’t want to be left behind in the race, even as the condition of roads is chaotic and people don’t like to follow road regulations.

"Indian roads present a true deep learning challenge," Roshy John, a 17-year veteran in the field of robotics told Bloomberg. John is the head of business at Tata Consultancy Services, Asia's largest IT services provider.


John has been trying to road test the Nano, which has been retro-fitted with driverless technologies including sensors, actuators and cameras along with a robotic system that handles the steering, gas pedal and brakes.

However, the condition of Indian roads has forced him to have all the original systems in place just in case an alert driver needs to control the car.

"We are a couple of years behind the West in autonomous technology and both startups and large companies are racing to catch up," said Sanjeev Malhotra, head of the Internet of Things Centre of Excellence, run by software industry body Nasscom. "But adoption is another thing, there we are trailing far behind."

Even if the government allows driverless vehicles on Indian roads, it won’t be easy to integrate them into city traffic, which runs on modern highways as well as dirt tracks, has to follow erratic street signage, and often encounters animals on road.

"After training and feeding hundreds of photos, our system cannot identify 15 percent of the vehicles on the Indian road," said Nitin Pai, senior vice president and head of strategy and marketing at Tata Elxsi. "The driverless car is ready for the road. But is the road ready for the car?"

John tried to test his car, a tiny white Nano hatchback, on a Bangalore road at just 25 miles per hour, but the car still stopped frequently and with a jerk. Following the directions, it stopped at four meters before the vehicle in front, only leading to continuous honking and abuses.

These disturbances have led to global leaders placing India at the far end of the list of countries likely to get self-driving cars. "Have you seen the way people drive here?" Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick told CNBC last year.

"Driverless cars for public use are at least 10 years away," John comments, saying that if driverless cars can work in India, they can work anywhere in the world.

(Image source YouthConnect)