Tata Elxsi is on an autonomous path these days. Simulation testing and fine tuning of its middle-ware framework and testing of its drive-by-wire system are keeping the Elxsi techies busy through the day and soon one may see an autonomous car being tested out on Bengaluru roads. The field trials could well be a few months away and the road transport authorities will have to then grant them permission for full-on autonomous testing on the road. Some Silicon Valley outfits are working on similar advanced technologies and are possibly progressing faster, but for Tata Elxsi it is all about building a product best suited for Indian conditions.
Indian roads have unique challenges, with drivers often having to contend with cows, dogs and pedestrians. This is the biggest challenge for autonomous cars in India and no one really believes such a concept is possible in India. Except the folks at Tata Elxsi.
A self-driving car fitted with a 3D Lidar (providing a cross-sectional profile of observed objects), short range sensors and cameras is the toy on campus, with engineers testing out the accelerator, brake and steering. They are building the self-driving platform ground up and they are using their resources judiciously. And they have to. The company started the research activity with a comparative study of technology trends and applicability of these technologies to its goals. It followed this up by identification and implementation of core building blocks consisting of software, sensors and hardware. But the road ahead is still a long winding one.
There are many challenges ahead and the team knows it. Some of the core technologies used in autonomous driving have their origin in mobile robotics. It is difficult to come across experienced engineering resources in this area. Therefore the company had to build the team from scratch. Lack of access to internal details of the drive-by-wire system of commercial vehicles is another challenge.
“We overcame this by building our own actuation system to control brake, accelerator and steering. Last, but not the least, is the challenge of Indian roads. However, we strongly believe that if we are able to address this challenge, our solution will work anywhere in the world. In the meantime we are working on intermediate solutions,” says Nitin Pai, senior vice-president and head of marketing & strategy, Tata Elxsi. Rajesh Kumar, vice-president, strategic initiatives at Tata Elxsi is the other key man leading this initiative.
The automotive world, globally, is betting on autonomous car technology to find its next growth curve. Ford, Mercedes and Tesla are betting on it and believe that the future is right here. But here in India we have a lot of catching up to do. High definition maps are a must as Google Maps may not provide sufficient help for a self-driving car. Work on a high definition map may have started elsewhere in the world but not here. According to Tata Elxsi’s Kumar, autonomous platforms for mining trucks and tractors may be ready sooner, as they are less likely to face regulatory hurdles.
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Internationally, there are no such concerns yet. Two weeks ago, Apple obtained permission to test its autonomous cars in California. A white Lexus emerged from an Apple facility this week, armed with sensors, according to a person who saw the vehicle and provided photos to Bloomberg. Apple has named the initiative ‘Project Titan’. California has given autonomous car testing permission to 30 companies, which includes not just car makers but also tech players. Apart from Apple, Alphabet’s Waymo is also using Lexus models to test its self driving cars. Waymo has said that it is adding 500 self-driving mini-vans to its fleet, taking its total number of autonomous vehicles to around 600. According to reports, most of these mini-vans will ply in the Phoenix area. But a key question is whether autonomous cars are prepared to battle the rigours of the road. According to experts, a lot of more research needs to be done before commercial usage is possible.
Coming back to Tata Elxsi and its pet project, Kumar says that the parent company is backing the efforts by Elxsi. He says his team has been making steady progress and very soon a driverless car could run on city roads, though a time frame may be difficult to arrive at, at this point in time.