July 25, 2017      

The major obstacles to self-driving cars aren’t technological; they’re cultural and legal. The latest example is an Indian car ban, which is a reminder of the concerns that makers of driverless vehicles must address before they can grow the global market.

India has said ‘no’ to putting self-driving cars on its roads. This is a monumental decision because of an apparent divergence between public opinion and government policy.

When IBM spoke with people across 16 countries, it found that three out four people in India were in favor of self-driving cars. According to an earlier survey, nearly 85% said “yes” to the option of using autonomous vehicles.

Why is the government going against what people want with an Indian car ban? India has nearly half of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. One of the promised benefits of self-driving cars is that they would pollute less. Also, with ride sharing, the number of cars on the roads will be reduced.

In fact, in case you missed it, India is looking into allowing private car owners to offer ride sharing as a service. Watch out Uber and Ola Cabs.

Business Takeaways:

  • India has recently banned self-driving cars from its roads, but the country is still interested in making and using electric vehicles.
  • Partnerships between Indian companies and major automotive firms such as Bosch and Nissan show that some multinationals recognize the talent and market that India can provide.
  • Autonomous vehicles are running into regulatory speed bumps now, so businesses need a long-term strategy to profit from India’s frugal approach to robotics, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence.

Why is India saying no?

The official explanation for the Indian car ban is unemployment. The Modi government fears that self-driving cars will increase the number of people looking for jobs in India.

But there are unstated priorities that are also driving the decision.

India car ban for self-driving cars reflects national traffic priorities.

Infrastructure: Smart cities require a lot of infrastructure, including intelligent traffic lights, automated parking stations, and sensors on the side of the roads.

Not only does India currently lack this infrastructure, but the government also has no plans to invest in it. The goal of the government is to build new roads and fix existing roads.

Attitudes: At the same time, saying that India has no infrastructure for self-driving cars is a copout. If the country can introduce a biometric ID for nearly a billion people or push people through “a note ban” and restructure the cash economy overnight, it could also invest in a driverless infrastructure.

However, the Indian car ban reflects a bigger problem — people’s attitudes.

Motorists and pedestrians worldwide are extremely impatient while on the road. In many countries, relatively few people follow traffic rules closely.

So if you throw self-driving cars into an already chaotic mix, people will not just simply blame them for causing problems. They could so far as to vandalize such vehicles or push them off the roads.

Even if you could put a police officer (or a robotic camera) at every kilometer, it wouldn’t quickly or easily change people’s feelings toward self-driving cars.

How will the Indian car ban affect self-driving automakers?

Rethinking India: On the one hand, India does not appear to be interested in self-driving cars.

On the other hand, by 2030, India wants only electric vehicles on its roads. In addition, India is the second fastest growing car market in the world (at 7%) after China. So you cannot ignore India, but it is no longer business as usual there.

One option for major automakers is to offer electric cars with some autonomous capabilities in India. This would help “future-proof” their production for a major market — not to mention others that are similarly worried about pollution and autonomy.

Of course, electric vehicles already exist and are being sold in India (without challenging its new ban on self-driving cars). However, they are mostly imported, and India’s government has said it will not offer any tax exemptions for electric vehicles.

The government wants car companies such as Toyota or Tesla to make their next-generation cars in India.

Will they play along, or will they, like General Motors, close shop and leave?

No longer a one-trick pony

Whether it is personal consumption or outsourcing, many see India as a one-trick pony. That’s a big mistake.

India is launching satellites like China is making solar panels. These days, Indian auto engineers and automakers can compete with anybody anywhere.

For instance, at car parts maker Bosch, German and Indian engineers are building an AI-driven “super-brain.”

Recently, Indian outsourcing firm Infosys showed off a self-driving golf cart that it built in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi.

Japan’s Nissan has applied for multiple patents in India for systems that can sense road conditions and help motorists.

So even with an Indian car ban around autonomous technologies, multinationals can still tap the Indian talent pool and expertise for the next generation of cars. Those interested in joining such lucrative partnerships just need to change their perceptions of India.

More on Self-Driving Cars and Indian Robotics:

Frugal robotics: A little goes a long way

Whether it is launching an Indian Space Orbiter to Mars for $74 million (nearly one-tenth of the cost of an equivalent U.S. space probe) or bringing retailers from the “informal economy” onto an e-commerce platform to compete with Amazon and Flipkart, “Gandhian engineering” is a part of the Indian psyche.

What will happen when India brings Gandhian engineering to self-driving cars? That’s what you need to focus on and not just how many cars you might sell there.