Google Maps, now available on all smartphones, have stopped us from rolling down window screens and asking for directions at every corner. With the popularity of app-based taxi services, at least some drivers know how to navigate using maps and find the best, traffic-free, routes to reach their destinations. However, Google maps are still far from perfect, at least not perfect enough for cars to navigate on their own. Often, we have found ourselves staring at closed RWA gates or dug up streets because the map has not been updated. To be fair to Google, these are very Indian problems as it is tough for a resident to block a road for his son’s marriage in most parts of the world.
And that could be one of the reasons why India will be a later stage market for autonomous vehicles, which will depend to a large extent on these real-time maps to be foolproof. However, India might end up being an early stage market for these same technologies being used to make driving safer. Companies like MapMyIndia, an Indian navigation company which you would have expected to have been hit the most from Google Maps, are already working on creating solutions for problems which are unique to India. Rohan Verma, executive director & CTO of the New Delhi-based company, says the idea is to provide self sustained high-definition maps in a market like India. “They enable safety without promising autonomy by telling a car about a hazard or a lane change much before the car reaches there. The power of connectivity can be brought in to update these maps realtime,” explains Verma. His company is using anonymous data from GPS units across the country to add more data like potholes, sharp turns etc and augment the static maps already available in the car units. This is a layer of data still not available on online maps.
Incidentally, every company working on self-driving vehicles is also investing in high-definition maps with exactly this kind of data. In fact, Uber has got Brian McClendon, who was one of the top Google Maps guys, to join its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh. The taxi aggregator, which now depends on Google Maps, seems to be working on its own 3D maps version to enable its cars to drive on their own whenever the time comes. While self-driving cars will also depend on sensors and cameras to see what is happening around it, its grid for movement will be based on high resolution maps.
If you didn’t know, Uber’s ultimate goal is to make the driver itself redundant and use the full installed capacity of the car. Right now, most car owners use their vehicles only for a fraction of the time, the rest of which is wasted in car parks. Uber wants to put these cars into use, or should we say gainful employment, when the owner is at work or home and has no use for the car. That way each car will drive more, thus reducing the need for more cars. The idea is revolutionary and could potentially affect many industries, including the auto and petroleum.
However, all of that is dependant on two things—uninterrupted internet connections and reliable maps. We are getting really close to fulfilling both these requirements. Also, a report prepared by Boston Consulting Group in association with the World Economic Forum says “widespread urban adoption of self-driving vehicles (SDVs) and could result in a 60% drop in the number of cars on city streets, an 80% or greater decrease in tailpipe emissions, and 90% fewer road accidents. That is really something worth achieving.
In fact, anyone who has driven on Indian roads might vote for driverless cars so as to take away the human element that seems to make things worse here. However, a road where both human controlled and robo-cars are driving will be a near nightmare scenario. And this is where governments will need to have policies in place soon. It is better to have these in place even before the first self-driving cars hit the roads to avoid a scenario like the one we are having now with drones.