Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Why driverless cars make sense for India

Bengaluru: More than two years back, the then minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari, said driverless cars will not be allowed in India because the government is not going to promote any technology that comes at the cost of jobs. On Wednesday, in his second innings as a minister holding the same portfolio, Gadkari simply reiterated this stance.

His argument was similar to what he said two years back -- the country has 40 lakh drivers and there is a shortage of 25 lakh drivers, and that driving skills can provide employment failing which jobs of 1 crore people would be at stake.

In a country like India with a little over 1.3 billion people, any policy decision that may impact jobs appears justifiable at first blush. However, going by Gadkari's own logic, why then is India insistent on introducing electric vehicles that may help unclog the air to some extent but destroy many jobs in the traditional auto sector?

Or for that matter, why introduce the bullet train or send satellites to space when that money can be used to create jobs in other sectors? Further, even the seemingly innocent metro rail may have put so many car and autorickhaw drivers off the roads.

There is no stopping automation. Companies will continue to use artificial intelligence (AI) software bots and AI-powered robots to maintain their global competitive edge. Besides, if you want to export ‘Made in India’ products successfully, you will need a cost advantage that only automation can provide. On a positive note, India alone will account for around 23% of jobs that will be lost to automation globally by 2021, according to research by human resources (HR) solutions firm PeopleStrong.

Will our policymakers, then, only adopt technologies that create jobs and shun those whose impact we do not fully understand as yet? If such was the case, we would have missed the benefits of the industrial revolution and would still be living in the smokestack era.

What may work, though, in favour of Gadkari's argument for now is that driverless cars will find most Indian roads too chaotic to function. Besides, driverless cars around the world are mostly "partially self-driving" as opposed to being "fully autonomous" or equipped with the Level 5 automation that implies full automation in all conditions as defined by SAE International-- the US-based association that develops global standards for the mobility industry.

However, there is no strong reason why India should not prepare itself for the future of transportation in a systematic manner.

India ranked 24 this year (20th in 2018) on consultant firm KPMG's 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI)--a tool to help measure 25 countries’ level of preparedness for autonomous vehicles. Despite the focus on when driverless cars will be available, autonomous minibuses are already providing passenger services in countries including Norway, Sweden and France, and AVs are likely to be as important in transforming public transport as they will be for private cars, the KPMG report stated.

Freight is set to be another early adopter of AVs. The Netherlands, for example, is working with Germany and Belgium on establishing ‘truck platooning’ — where one human-driven vehicle leads a convoy of autonomous ones — on major roads. One of the greatest benefits in efficient road use will come from public authorities being able to track and optimize the flow of vehicles, the report adds.

To begin with, automated vehicles can save lives and reduce injuries since 94% of serious crashes are due to human error, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). There are additional economic and additional societal benefits. A NHTSA study showed motor vehicle crashes in 2010 cost $242 billion in economic activity, including $57.6 billion in lost workplace productivity, and $594 billion due to loss of life and decreased quality of life due to injuries. Eliminating the vast majority of motor vehicle crashes could erase these costs.

Americans spent an estimated 6.9 billion hours in traffic delays in 2014, cutting into time at work or with family, increasing fuel costs and vehicle emission, according to the NHTSA. Similarly, on an average, travellers in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata spend 1.5 hours more on their daily commutes than their counterparts in other Asian cities during peak traffic times, according to an April 18, 2018, study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) that was commissioned by Uber. With automated vehicles, the time and money spent commuting could be put to better use--automated vehicles could free up as much as 50 minutes each day that had previously been dedicated to driving.

Automated vehicles may also provide new mobility options to millions who have some form of disability in this country. Moreover, shared self-driving car fleets can directly compete with urban taxis and public transport services. To be sure, while some drivers may lose their jobs, consumers would get access to reasonably priced transport options.

India can learn from countries like the Netherlands (leader of KPMG's AVRI 2019 list), which plans to launch platoons of more than 100 driverless trucks on major routes from Amsterdam to Antwerp and Rotterdam to the Ruhr valley. It is introducing new laws that will encourage AVs, something also pursued by the UK, Australia and France among others, notes the KPMG report. Singapore opened the Centre of Excellence for Testing and Research of Autonomous Vehicles at Nanyang Technological University (Cetran) in November 2017.

Singapore also announced that three areas -- Punggol, Tengah and the Jurong Innovation District - will use driverless buses and shuttles for off-peak and on-demand commuting from 2022, and it is working with the Netherlands on an international standard for AVs. On 1 January 2018, Norway legalized AV testing on public roads. The US Department of Transportation published Automated Vehicles 3.0 detailing its approach to AVs in October 2018. Sweden is experimenting with electric-charging roads, AV trucks and driverless buses.

Finland is focusing on getting AVs to work in winter conditions and automated bus services--and is repainting the yellow lines on its roads to an AV-friendly white. The UK and Germany, too, are working on AVs. The Chinese government (China was ranked 20th on KPMG's AVRI) allows first approved AV tests in 2018, with large number of local companies working to compete globally.

In India, several Indian start-ups are working on developing AV products for trucks, minibuses and cars, in some cases with a focus on exporting to other countries. And two years back, Infosys announced that a ‘driverless’ cart was developed at its Mysuru centre in southern India. Sameer Bhatnagar, partner, IGH and Global Sector Leader — Ports at KPMG in India, said in the report, "India’s strength lies in its innovation and technology. It could be the leading supplier of AV technology to the world and incubate an entire “SV for AV" — a Silicon Valley for Autonomous Vehicles. We hope to find unique and niche applications for AVs where they can help provide added value, safety and efficiency, such as in-plant logistics, in-campus movement and public transport."

One can defensively argue that India is an emerging country so it's unfair to compare it with the likes of the US, UK, Germany or the Netherlands. That, however, is a poor defence for a country that is literally aiming for the Moon.

Leslie D'Monte
Leslie D'Monte has been a journalist for almost three decades. He specialises in technology and science writing, having worked with leading media groups--both as a reporter and an editor. He is passionate about digital transformation and deep-tech topics including artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, crypto, metaverses, quantum computing, genetics, fintech, electric vehicles, solar power and autonomous vehicles. Leslie is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Knight Science Journalism Fellow (2010-11). In his other avatar, he curates tech events and moderates panels.
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