India needs to change its policies to allow faster adoption of autonomous vehicles, here’s how

According to 2019 Gartner forecasts, over 7,40,000 autonomous ready vehicles are expected to be added globally by the year 2023. Though the increase in the number of autonomous vehicles seems quite exciting, they may not actually represent sales of physical units as AV technology and regulations are still evolving. The present crisis may speed the R&D efforts and adoption of autonomous vehicles.

June 1, 2020 11:09 AM

By VV Ravi Kumar & Parth M Doshi

The Indian automotive sector which until very recently was struggling with several structural challenges including BS-VI compliance, faces a double whammy amidst Covid-19 lockdown. Major automakers and OEMs have either suspended their production or are operating with minimal workforce. While the country’s largest passenger car vehicle maker Maruti Suzuki recorded a 47% Y-o-Y fall in sales in March 2020, Tata Motors witnessed a sales decline of over 68% and 87% on a Y-o-Y basis in their passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles category, respectively. Based on a study by leading human resources and staffing firm Adecco, the Indian automobile industry can lose up to a million jobs in the dealer ecosystem, frontline roles, and the semi-skilled category. According to 2019 Gartner forecasts, more than 7,40,000 autonomous ready vehicles are expected to be added globally by 2023, registering a compounded annual growth rate of over 40%. Though the increase in the number of autonomous vehicles seem exciting they may not actually represent sales of physical units as AV technology and regulations are still evolving. The present crisis may speed the R&D efforts and adoption of autonomous vehicles.

Tata Motors, M&M and Escorts are some of the auto majors to have had showcased their working prototypes. While Indian startups such as Fisheyebox and Flux have been working on developing the technologies that support the crucial elements of autonomous driving such as sensors and navigation systems. In 2017, the Automotive Research Association India (ARAI) partnered with Cognizant Technology Solutions to work on an internal R&D program titled “SwayamGO” and showcased a prototype of autonomous vehicle using a standard electric passenger car. Self-driving vehicles and robots could be deployed on the streets for automatic spraying of disinfectants to sanitise public spaces. Autonomous pods and buses may also become a new norm.

According to a study by UBS, with an estimated market size of $1.2 trillion by 2030, robo-taxis are projected to become the top application for driverless vehicles. UBS expects ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft along with automotive giants such as General Motors Inc. and Volkswagen AG expected to play a leading role. In 2019, Tesla CEO Elon Musk also announced plans to compete with ride sharing platforms by using an autonomous ride-hailing fleet of over one million robo-taxis. Deployment of autonomous vehicles especially delivery vans have already witnessed an uptick in China post Covid-19. Chinese search giant Baidu’s open source autonomous vehicle platform Apollo partnered with self-driving delivery startup Neolix to deliver critical supplies and food to hospitals across China. According to a Bloomberg report, Neolix has already booked orders of over 200 vehicles in the past two months including from online megaretailers Alibaba and JD.com. Realising the benefits of autonomous delivery vans, the Chinese government has eased restrictions and is offering to fund purchase and operation of driverless delivery vans in their jurisdictions for up to 60% of the tag price.

Apart from parcel delivery, autonomous driving technologies have found innovative applications in the healthcare diagnostics space. Since March 2020, autonomous shuttles have helped Florida’s Mayo Clinic to transport tests from its testing site to a processing laboratory. The hospital partnered with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) along with self-driving startups Beep Inc. and NAVYA to initially use four attendant-less shuttles handling approximately 700 tests a day. Adoption, however, may be problematic in India. Besides, basic infrastructure challenges, India could face regulatory and political hurdles. But contrary to fears of job losses, AV technology would create thousands of high-skilled engineering jobs in the country required for the constant development and maintenance of telematics and LIDAR software along with big data analytics and machine learning.

Kumar is Deputy Director at Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune, and Doshi is Deputy Manager, Deloitte, India. Views are personal.

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