Can we imagine self-driving/autonomous cars in Indian traffic conditions?

“Testing the Tesla autopilot (self driving mode)” by Marc van der Chijs is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Autonomous technology has been gaining a lot of traction lately and many car brands such as Tesla have been adopting self-driven car technology with open hands. Even the transportation giants like Ola and Uber have hinted many times that there will be automated taxis in the future. The idea is big, and it is projected that these technologies can give gains up to trillions of dollars as there will be fewer fatal crashes, reduced load on emergency response, reduced carbon footprint, and the cost of ownership. Going by the trends, it can be expected that this technology will filter down to the mass-produced cars in a decade or two. The reduction in the cost of producing equipment such as Lidar and laser sensors is the biggest contributor to the rapid improvement in technology. But the real question remains, are self-driving or automated cars compatible with Indian conditions? Going by how the traffic moves here without any proper infrastructure, the answer right now will be a big NO! Now let us understand why the case is. 

The main thing to remember here is that this self-driven car technology has been developed keeping in mind the western settings, that cannot be replicated in Indian conditions at all. All the open data sets available regarding the AI technology refer to the west conditions with broad lanes and marked signs and splitters. But Indian roads are more difficult than western roads for the AI algorithms to learn, as there is insufficient information on the Indian road. Thus, in Indian conditions, algorithms trained in western data sets may not function effectively. The fact that driving is an intense social endeavor, often involving complex interactions with other vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, is, in turn, a significantly harder obstacle for AI technology, especially in India. India has many unwritten rules that have to be followed while driving. In many of such instances, people rely on common sense, which robots still lack. The fact that weather continues to provide a key challenge for self-driven vehicles compounds these challenges. Car sensors work just like human eyes, but they can be crippled in fog, and rain, or snow. And one can imagine what will happen in our great dusty conditions. 

On the ending note, the AI technology related to automobiles or a self-driven car is just not ready for our Indian conditions. Ask any initial owners of Volvo cars in India about how the simple driver aids such as automated braking got overwhelmed in our conditions. But this doesn’t mean we do not have a future for automated cars. Tesla is coming to India and this is a big stepping stone for automated cars. But we have to work hard to make it a reality. Right from the government to the common citizens driving on the Indian roads, all need to improve at their level. Right now we are some 15 years behind in terms of road infrastructure and traffic rule etiquette as compared to the west. So till we make our home affairs in order, automated technology will remain a distant dream.