Until last week, it was expected that Uber, world’s largest cab aggregator firm, would be the first to roll out ‘driverless’ cabs that can be hailed from a phone app as early as the end of this month. However, on August 26, Singaporean autonomous vehicle start-up nuTonomy rolled out public trials of its autonomous cab service in a small district in the city state. Although the scale of nuTonomy’s trial is much smaller than what Uber plans to do in Pittsburgh, its intentions are the same and the race to be the first to offer autonomous vehicles as a consumer service will only get intense.
Uber bought Otto, a driverless truck start-up firm, and then signed a deal with Volvo to modify the Volvo XC90 SUV with cameras, lasers, radars and GPS instrumentation. While doing so it edged past Google, which has several years’ worth of data from its autonomous car, as well as Tesla, which recently announced plans to introduce Auto Pilot 2.0 -- an advanced version of its self-driving technology.
Tests undertaken at present are not exactly with empty driver seats. The Singaporean company and Uber have specially-trained drivers with hands off the wheel to take control of the vehicle as the situation demands. More often than not, it is the vehicle that indicates when it needs human intervention, but all controls respond to human inputs on priority. The co-passenger is usually a data scientist who is tracking all inputs real-time to help understand how the driving algorithm can be improved. Uber’s car even has a computer in the trunk to help with processing of all this data real-time. To incentivise riders, all rides in autonomous cabs are free for now.
With all this happening in the domain of autonomous vehicles around the world, the next question to ask is: can we see this disruptive technology in India? If one is to be skeptical and point out that we have patchy mobile networks, inaccurate GPS integrations, lack of funding for disruptive tech, trust issues between drivers and riders as well as unruly traffic conditions that may not let an autonomous vehicle work in India, then let us also agree that these were the very issues quoted when the feasibility of a cab-hailing app was first discussed in the country. Today, we have Uber running more rides out of Bangalore than it does out of San Francisco and we have Ola, which is among the few ‘unicorn’ start-ups to get a billion dollars in funding. As for the traffic conditions, they make us the ideal ‘testing’ ground for this technology. Data from navigating on Indian roads could exponentially improve driving algorithms.
The issues that we may need to look into as and when such a technology presents itself in India are of a different nature, but not something we are unaccustomed to. The first one is that of perceived job loss for cab drivers, which would be an extension to the agitations of auto rickshaw and taxi drivers that the advent of cab aggregator apps has seen. State governments would do better if they factor in the possibility of autonomous cabs tomorrow while dealing with agitations against cab aggregator apps today. The need would be understand and pass on the message that technology is a labour augmenter, our robust service industry is a proof that new and better jobs are created when technology disrupts the status quo in traditional labour intensive markets. On the other hand, with manufacturing and skill development at the core of the present government’s employment generation plans, we may actually have to push for more automation to be adopted in other sectors.
Driver-centric clauses in the regulations issued by states such as Maharashtra and Karnataka for cab aggregators would be the next area to look into. In their present form, the regulations require drivers to have undergone strict police verification and, to quote from the Karnataka on-demand Transportation Technology Aggregators Rules (2016), have a “good moral character”. Policy-makers need to embrace the fact that the very concept of human accountability, associated with a cab ride, can be turned on its head by autonomous cabs. Liability laws for loss of life or limb now need to be framed in the light of who ‘owns’ the machine than the human operating it. We would also need to look at proposed legislations like the Geospatial Information Bill (2016) that specifically prohibit the kind of geospatial data collection that autonomous cars would do to improve their functionality. We may also need to look at our age-old motor vehicles acts because we cannot penalise an algorithm driven vehicle for a traffic violation the same way we attempt to penalise humans.
Benefits that would accrue out adopting this technology are immense. Most prominent among them is a decrease in congestion caused by unruly traffic, algorithms are not known to jump lanes or overtake from wrong sides unlike humans. Transportation costs will go down substantially as cab companies will not have to pay drivers. Most of the vehicles presently being tested are either electric or hybrid, the uptake of environmental-friendly vehicles may also increase in the long run. Car interiors would get much needed flexibility, allowing for more user focused additions, spacious seats and better infotainment systems. The overall aspect of women safety may increase with the human element removed, but this may vary from person to person.
Autonomous vehicles can be looked at as that overarching solution for a plethora of issues that we face today in our day-to-day commutes. They may give the commercial push that city-wide public Wi-Fi implementation has lacked so far, improve overall road safety and reduce rampant corruption in traffic departments. Do we have the infrastructure to start off tomorrow? Definitely not; what we do have though are some tailor-made circumstances. High rates of accidents on highways may come down if truckers don’t have to drive at night or under fatigue, BRTS and public buses may become more efficient if automated, even cabs of IT & ITES firms that have to ferry female employees at night can be a good pilot project.
The jury is still out on whether autonomous vehicles will be the future of transportation as we know today. However, we should not let uncertainty of outcomes deter us from framing policies that would promote such technology, because the thing about disruptive technology is that while we might not gain much as early adapters, we stand to lose a lot if we miss the bus, or the cab, in this case.
The author leads the digital policy team at The Dialogue, an online policy analysis portal. Views expressed are personal.