Self-Driving Cars: Made In India, Not For India

India’s chaotic roads make for a rich practice ground to collect data and build self-driving systems that are more reliable and low-cost

29 May 2024 12:30 AM GMT

A white Mahindra Bolero weaves its way through a dusty, crowded street in a small town in India, deftly avoiding a passing cow, several pedestrians and two-wheelers intermittently cutting across it. The street has no lane markers, sidewalks or signs. The car, which manoeuvers through the chaotic landscape with a prowess new drivers in India would not have, is actually driving itself.

This is not a scene from a futuristic film but a snatch from a six-minute video demo shared by Bhopal-based startup Swaayatt Robots, which is working on developing “self-driving” or autonomous driving technology in the country.

The company, which started in 2015, has been testing its technology through demos on the streets of Madhya Pradesh, and has achieved a level of autonomous driving that global automotive giants like Tesla are still struggling with.

The technology Swaayatt is developing, however, isn’t meant for the Indian market. “We are developing technology that is validated in India — the most complex, adverse and stochastic environment imaginable for autonomous vehicles,” said Sanjeev Sharma, the company’s founder. Their objective is to make the company one of the go-to technology suppliers globally in the near future.

And rightly so. India, with its unplanned roads and traffic issues, doesn’t make for a promising market. Plus, there is unlikely to be much demand for highly autonomous cars soon given the easily available labour. However, India’s chaotic roads make for a rich practice ground to collect data and build models that can deal with anything they may encounter on the road. This is giving Indian makers an edge over other companies. Some startups have caught up to this, and are developing tech, which they hope to take overseas.

Race For The Moon

There is a rush in developed markets like the US and China to get a headstart on autonomous and advanced assisted driving tech. Giants like Tesla and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have already started deploying “self-driving” vehicles at varying levels of autonomy. Such vehicles are currently limited geographically but are quickly expanding.

Tesla’s ‘autopilot’ system could potentially find its way into China, giving it a global edge, after Elon Musk’s recent Beijing visit. There it would face rivals like BYD and Huawei, which have rolled out driver assistance systems to navigate the country’s dense landscapes. Alphabet’s Waymo, which deploys autonomous taxis or ‘robotaxis’, is currently operational in Phoenix, Arizona and San Francisco, with new services planned in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas.

However, be it Tesla, Waymo, or even General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise, these companies have encountered several regulatory hurdles after safety concerns have been raised in the US.

Autonomous driving technology has levels ranging from 0 to 6, with level 1 being slightly autonomous (for instance cruise control features) and level 6 being completely autonomous with driving needing no human intervention. While Waymo and Cruise are testing level 4 technology, Tesla claims to be at level 3. Swaayatt Robots is aiming to achieve level 4 automation successfully this year.

Self-driving tech is like the race for the moon, auto expert Vinay Piparsania pointed out. “It seems to be where the holy grail right now is for auto manufacturers… how to make the vehicle smarter is the aim,” he told The Core.

Perfect For Export

India’s Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has, on more than one occasion, emphasised that driverless cars will not be allowed in India. His statements point to the risk of job loss for the scores of Indians employed as personal or taxi drivers, or working with gig platforms like Uber and Ola.

However, the current road infrastructure in the country makes self-driving cars seem like a far-fetched idea. India has seen an uptick in demand for cars with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). These systems use automated technology to assist the driver, but require the driver to be present and monitoring, as opposed to completely autonomous cars. They are focused primarily on safety, and include features like lane keep assist, emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control.

However, self-driving technology being tested in India — the most chaotic environment possible, as Swaayatt’s Sharma put it — has an edge.

Sharma explained that their approach to developing the technology has been different from that of Tesla or Waymo. These companies have collected millions of miles of data and depend heavily on high-definition 3D mapping which is critical for the vehicle to understand its location and navigate accurately. 3D mapping includes mapping the entire geographical area where the vehicle would ply to a millimetre level accuracy.

Building 3D mapping for various locations is expensive. This is why Waymo and Cruise are currently limited to select locations.

Plus, these earlier iterations of autonomous tech require heavy sensors like Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging), Radar, and cameras, pointed out Gursimran Kalra, COO and co-founder of Bengaluru-based autonomous driving tech company Minus Zero.

Not only is this technology more expensive, but when it encounters unique traffic problems (caused by say, errant human behaviour), called ‘corner cases’, it doesn’t know what to do. India’s roads provide more than enough such ‘corner cases’, where a different approach is required.

Swaayatt has heavily invested in motion planning and decision-making technology R&D, reducing dependence on high-definition maps by developing sparse maps or using GPS, and creating algorithms that take a more probabilistic approach.

Due to this, it is one of the few companies which has been developing tech for both on-road and off-road driving (the latter is used significantly in military operations).

Similarly, Kalra’s Minus Zero, which was launched in 2021, relies largely on AI, and a probabilistic model. “Driving as a concept is a very subjective task to us… that's similar thing AI models also, they are probabilistic systems,” he said.

As per a report by McKinsey, autonomous driving could create $300 billion to $400 billion in revenue by 2035. Swaayatt plans to be able to licence its technology to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), as well as build aftermarket capabilities globally by 2030.

“We want to be one of the default operating systems when it comes to autonomous driving at large,” Sharma said. The company received its first round of funding, valued at $3 million, in 2021, and is hoping to secure a second round soon. “We want to prove the technology as scalable, safe and cost-effective all over the world,” he added.

Similarly Minus Zero, which is planning to develop autonomous systems from level 2 to level 5, has seen interest from some global players for its level 4 prototype. “Practical application or not, if we can build technology here in India, it can be exported to the globe,” Kalra said.

What About Self-Drive Cars In India?

While self-driving cars seem like a distant reality for the country, what is seeing a rise in demand is cars laden with ADAS features.

There are several reasons for this. As cars are getting electrified, they're getting more electronic, which also means more features and connectivity. “The add-on features have become what is differentiating different brands,” Piparsania said.

India may not see an immediate demand for self-driving cars because labour for driving is abundant and cheap. But there is a rising importance being given to safety features. ADAS features mainly focus on the safety of the driver, be it emergency braking or lane keep assist.

Flow Pilot, which started as a college project in 2021 is an open-source ADAS system, built on top of openpilot, a US-based open-source, semi-automated driving software. Bengaluru-based Mankaran Singh, who is one of the founders of software, told The Core that they have collected around 1,00,000 miles of driving data, using cameras mounted on windshields, recording human driving behaviour. Using this, they are developing a driver assisting system catered specifically for Indian conditions, unlike systems provided by companies like Israel’s Mobileye, primarily designed for structured environments like the US.

Flow Pilot offers features tailored to the Indian market, such as the ability to run on low-powered devices like Android phones and supports various ADAS functions like lane-keeping, speed adjustment, and driver monitoring. It can be used only on highways, Singh said.

Singh posted a video on X earlier this month, of how he was using FlowPilot to drive his Alto car using his Redmi Note 9 Pro.

The Indian Express reported earlier this year how Mobileye had seen a four-fold increase in demand from India compared to what they had forecasted, in the last year. However, Singh told The Core that their system was more affordable and better suited for Indian needs. They have been in talks with several major OEMs and new EV companies, to incorporate these systems.

Kalra said Minus Zero has also seen increasing interest from Indian OEMs looking to incorporate systems similar to Tesla’s autopilot system in their offerings. Tesla’s autopilot is an advanced driving assistance system, which requires the driver to be fully aware but helps to steer the vehicle or match the car’s speed to traffic flow.

Self-Drive Commercially

Commercial vehicles, like trucks, are a segment where autonomous systems could be most effective. Piparsania equated it to the autopilot systems in aircraft — which can take over controlling every part of the flight envelope after take-off until before landing, with the pilot supervising.

Given that commercial trucks work on fixed routes, ply largely on highways, and have long hours of driving, “these make it more predictable for us to be able to mathematically build into their programming,” Piparsania explained.

Minus Zero unveiled a prototype called zPod last year, which is a level 4 autonomous vehicle, which doesn’t require a driver. It is currently meant for constrained environments like seaports, airports, and factory outlets, which is where the customer demand is, Kalra said. Driverless vehicles in such areas bring down costs significantly and are also more efficient since routes are fixed.

Trucks are a promising market both globally and in India. Minus Zero recently announced a partnership with Ashok Leyland to develop autonomous trucking solutions for ports, factory operations, and corporate campuses. Kalra said that the company would start integration and testing of their driverless technology with vehicles in some select factories and ports for 12-18 months, before launching the product commercially.

Next Story
Share it