March 07, 2016      

After the U.S., India has the second-largest road network in the world, at nearly 3 million miles. It is a no-brainer to assume that, one day, you will see self-driving vehicles running in India.

In fact, according to the Word Economic Forum, nearly 60 percent of people in India and China are willing to travel in autonomous vehicles. Surprisingly, the same survey found that people in Germany and Japan — two countries where automakers are advancing with self-driving car development — were least interested.

However, thinking about robotic vehicles in India can give you a headache.

At a minimum, any self-driving vehicle has to overcome the following challenges in India:

Complex terrain: From megacities like Mumbai or Delhi and emerging metropolises like Bengaluru or Pune, to small towns and countless villages, the terrain is not only different but changes radically. A modern road suddenly ends and becomes a dirt road. There are few, if any, warning signs. You have to adjust fast and in real time.

Driving behavior: Driving in India is chaotic and erratic. Drivers are unpredictable. You do not know what they will do next. On top of that, the roads — including highways — are shared among animals, pedestrians, cyclists, bullock carts, two-wheelers, three-wheelers, buses, trucks, automobiles, makeshift public transportation, tractors, and more.

Sixteen people died every hour in road accidents in 2014, making India one of the worst places in the world for driving.

Poor infrastructure: In November 2015, when heavy rains fell in Chennai (the largest city in the south with almost 9 million people living in its greater metropolitan area) the whole city drowned. For weeks, it was cut off from the rest of India and world.

India's highway system

India has the world’s second-largest road network.

Urban congestion and poor planning have made the Delhi, with nearly 18 million people, the most polluted city in the world.

At the beginning of this year, the government only allowed odd/even registration plates for cars in Delhi for two weeks. It is expected to do the same in April — and perhaps beyond.

If you look at India through these challenges, self-driving vehicles plus India does not add up. The idea seems like a 100-year journey.

Yet India continues to surprise the world.

Don’t underestimate Indian ingenuity

Start with Novus Drive, a self-driving shuttle developed by Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz Ltd., which is located in Gurgaon, a city just outside of New Delhi and part of the National Capital Region.

Novus Drive is a market-ready prototype. It can move 14 people at a time. Hop on, type in where you want to go, and sit down. If you wave a hand in front — a common gesture to hail a cab or request a bus to stop — Novus Drive will tell you if it will or will not stop.

The system is completely designed in-house and made in India. According to the company, you can use the shuttle at university or corporate campuses. Or, customize it for moving elderly people. Or, use its technology in other vehicles such as golf carts.

Go to Mumbai, where an engineer has developed a kit that can turn any car into an autonomous vehicle in under an hour. The kit comes with sensors, cameras, actuators and software. Roshy John’s kit has been installed in a Tata Nano, a car costing less than $5,000 car that does not come with an automatic transmission. Yet, the kit turns the manual-transmission car into a self-driving vehicle.

At the southern city of Hyderabad, similar work is under way at the International Institute of Information Technology. The institute plans to launch a kit costing less than $5,000. It will turn an existing car into an autonomous vehicle for the road conditions in India, like recognizing potholes.

Since roads in India are full of two-wheelers and bicycles, students at an engineering school in Kharagpur (about 72 miles southwest of Kolkatta in West Bengal) have developed an autonomous bicycle called “i-bike.”

The i-bike is designed for both regular and physically handicapped people. It can run on its own or switch into a pedal mode if required.

Perhaps the applications of self-driving vehicles in India will be limited. Perhaps more opportunities exist elsewhere. Or, perhaps everybody is wrong in understanding India.

Regardless, technology and patents for self-driving vehicles are coming from Indian innovation. They are researched and “Made in India.” They are frugal in price. They are local in scope.

Most importantly, these robotics projects may have been inspired by Google Inc., but none of them is waiting for or relying on Google to move forward.