India is a developing country and has a host of challeneges as far as the economy is concerned. While it is leading the front in a few industries like mobile payments, it’s also lagging behind in a few sectors.
The push for electric vehicles is one of them. Home-grown players are limited and the industry is considered to be a niche. Similarly, the country hasn’t witnessed the driverless future yet. There are no fancy Tesla’s roaming the streets and even experimental cars haven’t arrived yet.
This is because there are no regulations in effect to manage this piece of innovation. A couple of years back, road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari said driverless cars will not be allowed in India because the government will not promote any technology that comes at the cost of jobs. Last week, he again stressed this point and reiterated the government’s current stand.
From a long-term perspective, blocking off a piece of new technology is never recommended. However, India should be considered to be a different case because it has a slew of challenges that are unknown to other countries.
With more than 1.3 billion people, it’s no surprise the country’s prime asset is its human resource. The government is worried about driverless cars replacing human jobs and in turn, increasing unemployment.
According to the government, cab-hailing services like Uber and Ola depend on drivers for their business. If given an option, they’ll easily replace humans with machines to cut down on operational costs.
The minister said India has 4 million drivers and there is a shortage of 2.5 million drivers. Do we expect machines to fill-up this gap when a large percentage of the population is still left unemployed?
It’s debatable how much substance this thought process carries. Hasn’t email drastically reduced physical mail delivery jobs? Hasn’t quicker automation replaced humans for simple data entry? Technology will always move forward, it’s us who’ll have to make adjustments.
Though, there are a host of other challenges that make it impossible to run driverless cars in India. If you’re wondering why the fastest developing economy is saying “no” to the best in tech, here’s why!
1. Lack of infrastructure:
Being a developing country, the majority of India’s roads are poorly built. Even if it’s marked as a highway, maintenance is shoddy and they are nowhere when compared to global standards. Even developed states like Maharashtra and Karnataka have average quality roads that sometimes lack lane marking, proper exits, or even turn arounds.
For starters, only 1.7 percent of roads in India are considered to be “highways” or “expressways”. We define an “expressway” to be a controlled road that has a toll, at least four lanes, and an official speed limit of 80 km/hr. Their access is also controlled and no two-wheelers or three-wheelers are permitted entry.
Even for testing a driverless car, bare minimum standards are necessary. Developed markets have invested enough in infrastructure and a minimum requirement has been fulfilled. Uniformity is the key, and while India has a few routes that are extremely well built, the remaining chunk is disappointing.
2. Practically, no policing:
A future where all cars are driverless is different. When that happens, they’ll be communicating with each other and properly following the law. This makes them predictable and everyone on the road can make adjustments.
But in the real world scenario, these machine-assisted cars will be driving among humans, and that’s when unpredictability is at its peak. India’s police force is quite small when compared to the population it serves, meaning traffic laws take a back seat.
It’s a common sight everywhere in the country to not follow the signals, lanes are never followed, turn indicators are barely used, and speed limits are a joke. Jay walking is rampant and even though it sounds like a cliche, any animal or human can jump across the road any moment. In the initial phase, it’s impossible for a computer to predict its neighboring cars and act accordingly.
You’ll barely be able to move a few meters without stopping, again and again, thanks to unruly surrounding traffic. This will be especially true in cramped cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru where lanes are non-existent and a two-wheeler can cut you off any moment.
Countries like the US have strict policing and special regulations in place to let companies experiment and develop new products. States like California offer a holistic environment because everyone is quick at adopting new technology.
3. There’s no demand:
Yes, there’s no demand for a driverless car because labor is cheap. Why spend millions, if not billions, of rupees on a driverless car when you can just hire a driver?
Only a set of privileged few can actually afford them in India. And they’ll be nothing more than a status statement. Like I’ve said previously, India has a different set of challenges, and the availability of humans isn’t one of them.
I’m not saying driverless cars can never come to India, they sure will someday. But, that someday is far away. The country needs to get its basics right first, and that’s why the government is outright ignoring them. Letting even one experimental car requires a different set of regulations and compliances.
China has been aggressive with electric vehicles and has plenty of newly developed cities that can be a perfect testing ground for driverless cars. Homegrown company Baidu has recieved a licence to test them in Wuhan.
On the other hand, India is currently going through a credit crisis, a few states are still extremely under-developed, and pollution is increasing day by day. I’d prefer the government to focus its resources on solving these problems than opening up a new box of challenges that our bureaucrats are least capable of understanding.
India was among the few countries to skip the PC/laptop revolution. A percentage of people bought them for domestic use. But, the country immediately jumped onto the mobile revolution and the rest is history.
Similarly, working around electric vehicles is the right thing to do right now. We can embrace driverless cars later when we’re ready for them.