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Self-drive cars home in on India, and fast

HT Business:  October 10, 2016

New Delhi: In the summer this year, Joe King, the India head of Audi, was in Germany, driving a car with driverless technology, though not fully automated. When a car pulled-up in front of King, his Audi automatically applied the brakes. On another occasion, King’s driverless car took a perfect turn at 270 km an hour.

India does not have the kind of roads Germany does — the 270 kmph kind — but that does not mean this country cannot have cars that turn on their own. In fact, that day is not far when India will have driverless cars.

King expects self-driving Audis coming to India in the next four years. But the race is not confined to luxury carmakers such as Audi and technology companies such as Google; India’s largest car maker Maruti Suzuki and utility vehicle maker Mahindra & Mahindra too are very much in the race.

In fact, Maruti Suzuki has already introduced aspects of driver less technology in the version of Baleno that is exported to Japan and Europe. The premium hatchback has functions to assist the driver to have a safer ride. The collision-mitigating system, which features Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), maintains distance from the vehicle in front accelerating and slowing down automatically .“It also has autonomous emergency braking capabilities when the car senses something ahead of it, to reduce the impact of collision,” said Raman CV, executive director (engineering) at Maruti.

Driverless cars are modified versions of normal cars, fitted with radar, laser, infrared sensors and cameras that allow the car to see, sense, feel and react to objects around it.

Advocates of self-driven cars say these can substantially reduce the 1.24 million deaths that happen in road accidents every year.

Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) is investing in driverless vehicles across its models. Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director, said at the company’s annual general meeting this year that the “future of mobility” is in shared mobility, renewable energy-powered vehicles — and autonomous vehicles.

“I believe that the technology is closer than we imagined. But their use will first occur in ring-fenced ‘circuits’ almost like shuttle routes. These could be located in city centres or tourist monument venues, or in some dedicated freight corridors,” said Mahindra, and added that his company would focus on developing autonomous, driverless commercial vehicles. For instance, Blue Labs, the company’s innovation centre, is working on an autonomous The government’ s opening up, in March, of the radar frequency that is used in automobiles has accelerated the advent of driverless cars in the country. Volvo launched the first radar technology-based car, the X90, in India in September. Jaguar Land Rover, owned by the Tata Group, brought in pilot parking with the new XF.

Before radar, carmakers could use camera and infrared, but those technologies have limitations — they work better at speeds of up to 40 kmph. “If there is a truck parked on the road, the radar picks up the signal, and sends the information to the driver from a few hundred meters ahead, and if you don’t stop, the car autobrakes itself,” said Tomvon Bonsdorff, managing director of Volvo Auto India.

All the technologies combined together allow a car to overtake and come back on the lane and take exits under normal traffic situation. As automakers feed the car’s system with more knowledge, it makes autonomous driving a better experience.

But all this technology comes at a cost. According to consultancy firm IHS Automotive, self-driving technology will make existing products $7,000-10,000 more expensive by 2025. But as the technologies become widespread, this will drop to $5,000 by 2030 and $3,000 by 2035.

IHS forecasts that sales of autonomous vehicles will be nearly 21 million in 2035. The US, Japan and China lead in the race of self-drive vehicles. “Global sales of autonomous vehicles will reach nearly 600,000 units in 2025,” Egil Juliussen, director of research at IHS Automotive, said in a report.

He said self-drive cars will have a 43% compounded annual growth rate between 2025 and 2035. Numbers for India were not available.

Most of the self-drive technologies will inevitably crop up in luxury cars. “Use of new technology is always in high-end cars before it is given to mass-market cars,” said Wilfried Aulbur, managing partner of Munich-headquartered Roland Berger’s India operations. The high cost involved in any nascent technology is one reason.

But India has a long road ahead before self-drive becomes pervasive. For one, all its roads will need to be mapped down to every inch, and not every metre or foot, if self-drive needs to become a reality, says a global executive at taxi-hire app company Uber.

Companies such as Uber and Google want a fleet of such cars in the next few years. Ford, too, wants one by 2021 for ride-share. Elon Musk’s Tesla is looking to spread its wings in India.

India has no laws on self-drive. Even car insurance companies will have to look to include driverless cars into their coverage.

“Technology is developing faster than the legal framework… What happens if two driverless collide? Who is to be blamed – the car maker or the traffic manning system?” asked Roland Folger, MD and CEO at Mercedes-Benz India.

Disclaimer: This information has been collected through secondary research and IBEF is not responsible for any errors in the same.