At a secret testing track outside Bangalore, an arm of the Tata conglomerate is recreating the jumble of Indian roads to develop an autonomous driving system.
That means accounting for pedestrians darting through traffic at will, multiple lanes that merge without warning, poor signage and stray cattle lingering on the roadside.
India’s push into the driverless race is being driven by conglomerates such as the Tata Group and Mahindra Group along with a slew of startups and engineering schools, which are taking on global giants in an industry that Intel projects will spur $7 trillion of spending by 2050. The country, forecast to soon be the world’s third-largest auto market, is loath to be left behind even as its chaotic roads and regulations create unique hurdles.
“Indian roads present a true deep learning challenge,” said Roshy John, a 17-year veteran in the field of robotics who heads that business at Asia’s largest IT services provider Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. John’s innovations are riding on sister company Tata Motors’ $3,500 Nano, touted as one of the world’s cheapest cars, while another unit of the group, Tata Elxsi, is developing the driverless platform.
Since 2013, Cochin-based John’s obsession has been to road test the Nano, retro-fitted with driverless technologies including sensors, actuators and cameras as well as a robotic system to handle the steering, gas pedal and brakes.
But with road rules forbidding autonomous cars on the nation’s streets, the vehicle still has all the original systems in place so an alert driver can grab the controls. Without the dual systems, even a YouTube video of a test drive is enough to get John in legal trouble.
Apart from the anarchy of its streets, developers in India have also given up a headstart to global giants who are pouring billions into developing platforms. While Alphabet Inc., Uber Technologies Inc., Ford Motor Co., Baidu Inc. and Tesla Inc. have all invested heavily, nobody has yet developed a roadworthy autonomous solution.
“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 rules are changed to allow driverless vehicles, integrating them into city traffic will remain especially complicated in India. Roads can vary between modern highways and dirt tracks, with erratic street signage, a wide variety of vehicles and the occasional elephant or camel.
For example: the ubiquitous, three-wheeled auto-rickshaw is rigged in so many different ways by its drivers that sensors struggle to identify its form, creating complications for machine learning algorithms.
“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?”
When John’s test car, a tiny white Nano hatchback, recently weaved its way through thin Sunday morning traffic in Bangalore at just 25 miles per hour, it still made frequent, jerky stops. As the car pulled up the required four meters short of the vehicle in front, irate drivers honked incessantly and yelled out abuse. A cow meandering into its path triggered another halt, as did the flinging of a massive banana stem out onto the road by a shop owner. As a limbless beggar wheeled his crude platform close, the car’s engine stopped abruptly.
Despite such indigenous efforts, global leaders in the autonomous race think driverless cars in India are a stretch. After weaving in and out of chaotic traffic during a visit last year, Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick told CNBC that India would be the last place on earth to get self-driving cars. “Have you seen the way people drive here?” he asked. On a visit a few months later, Google head Sundar Pichai agreed.
Local innovators are hardly deterred, with Tata Elxsi outfitting two different categories of cars with its own drive-by-wire systems. It has sought permission for road tests but the government is still looking to amend the motor vehicle law to allow such trials.
That even test drives of autonomous vehicles on the wild streets outside is years away was obvious at a recent ‘Drive with IoT’ conference spearheaded by Nasscom. Engineers swarmed the hotel venue to witness Mahindra test-drive its electric car rigged to receive signals from a second steering wheel connected to a laptop and the vehicle’s drive-by-wire system. However, the tame test-drive was confined to the grounds of the hotel. Still, Mahindra’s $1 million prize to young innovators creating a driverless car drew nearly 700 startups.
Tata Elxsi, which said it has licensed its technology platform to a global top 5 automaker, is finding that in India even basic elements like road signs present a formidable challenge. Pai said its traffic sign-reading algorithm is ranked among the top three in the world and has beaten every human driver in accuracy tests in Germany. But in India where road signs are frequently absent, falling off or barely visible, the system needs a lot more training.
“The newest high-speed corridors and smart cities like Amaravathi in southern India, which are being developed from scratch, could be starting points for commercializing the technology," said Rajesh Kumar, vice president, strategic initiatives at Tata Elxsi, who foresees first adoption in mining, agriculture and offshore rigs.
At TCS, a team of 30 is working on key elements like algorithms for energy management systems to save juice as well as cheaper and better sensors so that the technology isn’t out reach of the average Indian paypacket. It’s also working on better failure redundancies for Indian conditions as well as hacker-proofing critical systems.
“Driverless cars for public use are at least 10 years away,” said John, who said the country’s challenges could provide the ultimate proving ground. “If it can work in India, it can work anywhere in the world.”