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We are on the cusp of an automobile evolution

Many have taken to seeing the future through the bleak lens of 2016, but technology ought to compel us to view the glass as half full. Getting on the road, for instance, may not have to be a chore in the years ahead

columns Updated: Jan 07, 2017 19:14 IST
The interior of Japan’s internet commerce and mobile games provider DeNA Co’s Robot Shuttle, a driver-less, self driving bus, is seen during its demonstration in Tokyo, Japan (File Photo)
The interior of Japan’s internet commerce and mobile games provider DeNA Co’s Robot Shuttle, a driver-less, self driving bus, is seen during its demonstration in Tokyo, Japan (File Photo)(Reuters)

As I spent some time towards the end of 2016 in New Delhi, two principal items of conversations dominated: The first, of course, was demonetisation and how cash flow had been dammed by the government. The other was that of a different kind of logjam, and this isn’t a sly reference to the winter session of Parliament, but rather the hours of commuting time that have been added by the explosion in the number of vehicles on the capital’s roads.

Intermittent interventions like the odd-even rule make as much of a dent in dealing with such a crisis as would a bicycle crashing into an erstwhile Ambassador. Many cities like Delhi are at peak congestion, whether in its traffic or toxic air, and there’s an interplay between them. But, once you’ve hit bottom, the only way is up.

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We are on the cusp, at least in the US initially, of the first real evolution of the automobile since the 1970s — the self-driving vehicle. Every manufacturer is burning rubber on a possible self-driving fleet, from Tesla and Google to Volkswagen, Ford, GM, and Jaguar. The expectation is that these vehicles will start rolling out next year and become common within another decade.

The Boston Consulting Group has projected that by 2035, 25% of the car market could comprise partially or fully autonomous cars, really putting the auto in mobility.

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Among those driving this change is Indian-American Padmasree Warrior, CEO US of the Chinese firm NextEV, makers of the NIO cars. An IIT-Delhi graduate, Warrior sees the Car 3.0 as one where software defines hardware, a generational leap over the electronics systems that first arrived in the 1970s. I attended her presentation at the TiE Global Summit in Delhi last month, where she asserted that “the car as we know it today is going to fundamentally change in the next decade.” Just as the cellphone was once only a voice device but is now a computing platform, a car with a digital cockpit will be truly a mobile platform. Such products could take the snarl out of driving, in many ways.

Sensors will make the vehicles safer, they will charge ahead on batteries thereby reducing emissions and, yes, could well be “headless”. One of the opening slides used by Warrior was a story in this newspaper on how much more time a Delhiite spends during peak hours in a personal vehicle, an increase of over 100% over the past six years.

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What the next wave of cars will do is make road usage more efficient. However, while the concept of truly autonomous vehicles may work in North America, as Uber test drives some in Arizona, artificial intelligence needs to scale a couple of levels to be roadworthy in India. So, the human will have to be factored in, but guided by a smart system that reduces errors.

Coupled to that, Morgan Stanley figures that India has the “right ingredients to become one of the largest markets for shared mobility in the world.” I tried out these options, the real share quotient of ride-share apps, like UberPool or Ola Share, and a young demographic seems to have a liking for the idea. Or, at least, that was the profile of my co-passengers. If this becomes more prevalent, vehicular pollution loads will be lightened.

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A decade earlier, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, I watched experts speak about how India could leapfrog automotive technology by a generation by fostering alternatives-fuelled vehicles. Obviously that never happened as the industry kept spinning its wheels and instead leveraged subsidised diesel to keep fossil fuels alive at the pump. A century since the first hand-cranked Model T Fords trundled off assembly lines, another opportune moment has arrived. Manufacturers should pay attention to these road signs.

Many have taken to seeing the future through the bleak lens of 2016, but technology ought to compel us to view the glass as half full. Getting on the road, for instance, may not have to be a chore in the years ahead. The future is electric, literally.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal