Self-Driving on Indian Roads Indian self-driving car startups tackle chaotic roads

May 29, 2024
Reading time
2 min read
Autonomous Driving through Extremely Dynamic-Complex Traffic-Dynamics in India

Few makers of self-driving cars have braved the streets of India. Native startups are filling the gap.

What’s new: Indian developers are testing autonomous vehicles on their nation’s disorderly local roads. To cope with turbulent traffic, their systems use different technology from their Western and East Asian counterparts, IEEE Spectrum reported.

How it works: In Indian cities, two-, three-, and four-wheelers share the road with trucks, pedestrians, and animals. Drivers often contend with debris and potholes, and many don’t follow rules. These conditions demand vehicles outfitted with technology that’s more flexible (and less expensive) than the interwoven sensors, models, and 3D maps employed by self-driving cars designed for driving conditions like those found in the United States.

  • Where typical self-driving cars combine visible-light cameras, radar, lidar, and GPS, vehicles built by Swaayatt Robots view the world solely through off-the-shelf cameras. The company’s software creates a probabilistic representation of their environment. Although this is normally computationally intensive, Swaayatt claims to have found a low-cost way to do it. Trained via multi-agent reinforcement learning, its systems use game theory to model road interactions and computer vision to fill in missing lane markings. A video shows one of the company’s SUVs navigating narrow roads in its home city of Bhopal.
  • Minus Zero focuses on highway driving. Its zPod vehicle navigates using cameras and a GPS sensor. Rather than a series of models dedicated to a single task such as object detection or motion planning, zPod employs a world model that recognizes important details in its surroundings and plans accordingly. The company partnered with Indian truck manufacturer Ashok Leyland to deploy the technology in the next several years.
  • RoshAI specializes in retrofitting existing vehicles with autonomous capabilities. It offers separate systems that map a vehicle’s surroundings, control speed and steering, and generate simulations for testing. It aims to retrofit conventional vehicles at lower cost than the price of an integrated self-driving car.

Behind the news: Bringing self-driving cars to India has political as well as technical dimensions. Many Indians hire full-time drivers, and the country’s minister of roads and highways has resisted approving the technology because of its potential impact on those jobs. Drivers cost as little as $150 per month, which puts self-driving car makers under pressure to keep their prices very low. Moreover, India’s government insists that vehicles sold there must be manufactured locally, posing a barrier to foreign makers of self-driving cars.

Why it matters: Rather than starting with an assumption that traffic follows orderly patterns with many edge cases, Indian developers assume that traffic is essentially unpredictable. For them, events that most developers would consider outliers — vehicles approaching in the wrong lanes, drivers who routinely play chicken, domestic animals in the way — are common. This attitude is leading them to develop robust self-driving systems that not only may be better suited to driving in complex environments but also may respond well to a broader range of conditions.

We’re thinking: Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said that India would be “the last one” to get autonomous cars. These developers may well prove him wrong!


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