Tech gears up to take the wheel


The automobile industry, which is governed by exhaustive regulations, constrained by the availability of fuel and dependent on the crumbling infrastructure, is pinning its hope on the advancement in technology which could take the entire mobility system to the stratosphere.

Auto giants are gearing up to the concept of ‘Autonomous Vehicles’ aka driver-less cars, which would probably never crash or hit-and-run. This concept seems no more fictional, and is a soon-to-be reality.

The possible benefits of such a car could be many. Imagine cars programmed to avoid a crash. The only thing you need to do is to choose your destination. Blissful. It maybe a dream come true for the disabled and the aged.

Hopefully, this could also ease congestion and shorten the time spent on commuting.

Technology giant Google has already pioneered the technology, first in Nevada and now, in four foreign cities. This triggered the mainstream auto industry to develop autonomous vehicles of their own.

Google has been working on the project since 2009, but the fantasy started taking shape in as early as 1939 at New York world’s fair where visitors were presented a vision of automated highways. So far, Google has tested one million miles and are out on the street of California, Austin, Mountain View and Texas.

Following the same path, other automobile players like Nissan, Toyota, Ford, General Motors and Volvo will be teaming up to build a fleet of driver-less cars. In fact, some models are going through transition period. For instance, Japanese auto maker has already announced its plans to launch 10 vehicles in the category by 2020. This will be under the Renault-Nissan alliance, a partnership between Nissan and French automaker Renault. The company is likely to showcase its single-lane control feature this year itself while multi-lane control will make its debut in 2018.

Toyota and General Motors (GM) also have plans to launch a slew of models under their self- driving mechanism.

Recently, GM invested $500 million in ride-sharing giant Lyft to jointly develop technology for autonomous cars. Apart from this, last year in October, the company had announced plans to have its self-driving versions of its Chevy Volt.

Ford Motors also unveiled its future plans at the stage of Consumer Electronic Show (CES). Ford said it would be tripling its fleet of self-driving cars, eventually totalling 30 units.

Anurag Mehrotra, executive director (marketing sales and service), Ford India, told dna, “There is amazing work going on under autonomous mechanism. We are doing lots of tie-ups, working with technology partners. The future of entire mobility space is going to be redefined.”

Apart from this, auto giants are also trying to change the perception of owing a car with the ‘shared ownership’ concept.

“Ford is doing roughly about 25 experiments in different parts of the world. One of those experiments is happening in Bangalore. The experiment is where a group of people actually own a car, there is front-end which is created. They can chose what time to what time they want a car and you can then schedule how the car gets used for everyone. It is called shared ownership,” said Mehrotra.

Another form of sharing concept is also under transition period in South America. If your car is lying idle in the parking lot while you are at work, it can be given to someone else to drive.

The massive plans, if go without any disruption and with participation by all the industry majors, may transform the automotive industry and perhaps alter the concept of what an automobile is.

But there are plenty of questions. Are we prepared for a complete makeover and a sense of self-directed freedom? Do we have adequate roads and other infrastructure? Do we have the ability to experiment with autonomous and non-autonomous at one go?

Vishnu Mathur, director general of Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), told dna, “In India, or for that matter in any part of the world, we need to be realistic. Technology advancement is always welcomed, but then, you need to see the regulatory and administrative aspects of it. Security issues also need to be addressed.”

“In countries like UK, the aspirational value for car has reached a saturation point. There is no such aspiration there to own a car. But in country like India, mobility from here will increase, because we are yet to reach at saturation level as far as owning a car is concerned. Top of that, you need to have that affordability factor to adopt such technology,” he added.

Meanwhile, the most daunting task these days for the auto giants is to comply with emission norms. Bharat Stage (BS) emission standards are emission norms based on the European standard which says that all new vehicles manufactured after the implementation of the norms have to be compliant with the regulations. At present, BS IV emission norms have been in place since April 2010. Recently, the Indian government announced that the country would skip the Euro V norms altogether and adopt Euro VI norms by 2020. There is no country ever which has gone directly to BS VI.

What is more, the Supreme Court’s stand on banning heavy diesel vehicles due to rising air pollution in Delhi has put a cat among pigeons. There is an apparent shift of focus to petrol engines. But what about the soul of the car? It’s still an object of self expression and adding an aspirational value in every household. Or the innovators should start looking at some other way to conserve energy and extend range to use mobility considering global warming by bringing in more eco-friendly green fuel like bio gas, solar energy, electric car and hydrogen gas-based cars.