In the developed countries of the West, autonomous driving technology is widely touted as the thing of the future. Move halfway across the globe to one of the densest and the world's second most populated country, the idea of self-driving vehicles might still be a distant dream.
In the eye of a non-native, India would be an explosion of ideas, colors, languages, and quite impossibly chaotic. And the analogy extends to the streets, with traffic logjams existing at every road junction during peak hours - with bikes, autos, buses, cars, trucks, and pedestrians vying for space on the road. Traffic rules often take a back seat, with furious honking and cacophonic commuters adorning every inch of the road.
Simply put, Indian roads are the unsurmountable nemesis for a technology that depends on order and sanity on roads to function effectively.
Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google and an Indian by birth, summed it up perfectly when he said he did not foresee a future for fully automated cars in India. This sentiment was echoed by Uber founder Travis Kalanick, albeit jokingly, that India would be the last place on earth to get his company’s self-driving cars.
All this boils down to understanding the psyche of Indian drivers, the conditions of roads, and in general, the economic viability towards adopting such technology in a developing country.
Autonomous driving eventually boils down to AI systems analyzing millions of data points derived from observing drivers on the road, and iteratively learning how to drive against oncoming traffic. In a country where people frequently jump traffic signals, cut lanes, and overtake erroneously, training an AI model becomes a frustrating errand.
Then comes the problem of visual learning - a lot of Indian roads on highways and city outskirts fail to have road signs, which would perplex autonomous software. Add to this the apparent lack of homogeneity in vehicle shapes. Take, for instance, the auto-rickshaw. It is a three-wheeled vehicle, which makes it a hybrid of a motorbike and a car. The vehicle is generally used as a taxi hire, and thus its drivers remodel the vehicle to increase space inside the cabin to fit in more people. The shapes of these autos vary across the length of the country and thus, autonomous systems might have a hard time figuring out one.
More importantly, the Indian economic scenario and the impact of adopting autonomous technology on its ecosystem needs to be accessed. Nitin Gadkari, the Minister for Road Transport & Highways, announced last year that India is not keen on adopting any technology that could take away jobs, hinting heavily at autonomous driving systems. This is prudent regarding the fact that there are tens of millions of drivers in the nation who would lose their jobs if they are replaced by machines.
Honestly said, autonomous technologies are still in their infancy even in developed and technologically advanced countries like the U.S., which also has the wherewithal of investing billions into the technology. At a time when India is still working on improving its road infrastructure and looking to create more jobs, automation would be the last thing on its checklist.
But again, all is not lost for the Indian market. Though autonomous driving might be out of the equation for now, assistive technologies could be the future. Unlike city roads, the national highways that long-haul trucks ply on are generally low on traffic and thus, could favor driver assistive technology.
Fleet companies in India lose a lot of money due to lower fuel efficiency, mostly because the drivers are prone to accelerate and decelerate at frequent intervals. Assistive technology could improve that drastically by maintaining speeds optimized for fuel efficiency over longer stretches of National Highways (NH). Most of the NH roads offer better conditions to drive on, with minimal traffic congestions and above-average road quality, thereby a suitable experimental ground for assistive technology. Also, Indian truck drivers are also notorious for causing accidents with rash driving, which could be significantly reduced with such technology.
That being said, apart from the technical difficulties of developing accurate assistive technologies, India still has a long way to go in integrating the technology with the trucking community. Nonetheless, technology is exciting and with India being a hotbed for startups in Asia, could come up with a miracle that might change the Indian freight industry for the better.
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