Slow to start,
Indian tech startups,
automakers in full throttle
on autonomous vehicles

Sunny Sen and Anand Murali
11 December 2017

One sureshot – and, perhaps, foolish – way to test autonomous, or driverless, vehicle technology is to step in front of a four-wheeler equipped with it. If the tech works, the vehicle will stop or steer itself away. If it doesn’t, you could be roadkill.

One of the writers of this story chose to test an autonomous van at the premises of Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz, a Gurugram tech company that has been working on driverless cars for some 12 years. When he stepped in front of it, the van either stopped or drove past avoiding him.

It’s early days and you won’t see much about them but autonomous vehicles are here in India.

The era of autonomous driving in India was signalled last year with instances popping up in quick succession in India Inc. In July 2016, the then CEO of software services company Infosys, Vishal Sikka, arrived at a media briefing of the company’s quarterly results in a driverless golf cart together with his deputy, U B Pravin Rao. The following month, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, and later his children Akash and Isha, were driven in an autonomous shuttle. It had a driver, just in case. Then, just a week before his ouster in October from the Tata group of companies, group chairman Cyrus Mistry was given a demo of the first ever fully autonomous Indian bus.

Seshu Bhagavathula, CTO – Product Development at commercial vehicle maker Ashok Leyland agrees it tough to predict the adoption of autonomous technology in India given the chaotic traffic on its roads. “While a fully-autonomous, self-driving vehicle might be years away from running on public roads, what we see is safety features like automatic or assisted brakes, assisted parking, adaptive engine mapping, etc. will see a faster adoption,” he says. “They will start with simple ‘driver warning systems’ and will gradually move to advanced ‘driver assistance systems’ over the coming years.”

Seshu Bhagavathula, Chief Technology Officer - Product Development, Ashok Leyland

Seshu Bhagavathula, Chief Technology Officer - Product Development, Ashok Leyland

Leyland’s bigger rival Tata Motors is more optimistic about the uptake of vehicle autonomy here.With the emergence of newer technologies, we expect a gradual shift in the operation of automated cars – from Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) to fully autonomous,” says a senior Tata Motors official closely associated with its autonomous vehicle efforts. “It is very clear that vehicles featuring autonomous systems will become an increasing part of our mobility experience.”

This official, who asked to stay anonymous for this story because he is not authorised to be quoted in media, predicts the proportion of driverless vehicles will increase gradually and will be more around specific applications and locations. SUV-to-tractor maker Mahindra, for instance, is working on a driverless tractor (demoed in September).

The international autonomous car story is older. Google began developing autonomous vehicles back in 2009 as part of its Self-Driving Car Project. The project was renamed Waymo in December 2016 and, in November 2017, Waymo said that it has started testing its driverless minivan without a safety driver in the driver seat. Volvo and Uber signed an agreement in August 2016 to co-develop driverless cars. Ford plans to put 30 such cars on the road before 2017 rolls on. And, General Motors and Uber-rival Lyft have a Volvo-Uber-like agreement.

Expensive tech

Hi-Tech Robotic, which is working with at least half a dozen automakers, offers a good example of what stage autonomous vehicle technologies is in India. “In 2015, carmakers became keen on commercialising autonomous technology. We are working with six to seven OEMs – like Tata Motors, Mahindra, Maruti Suzuki – for both passenger and commercial vehicles,” says Ritukar Vijay, head of autonomous technologies and business strategy, Hi-Tech Robotic.

Vijay said that one of the biggest reasons why deployments have been slow is cost. Going by current costs, he estimates, a fully autonomous vehicle will cost as much as 10 times of that of a regular vehicle making it an unviable product.

As more and more automakers have started working on autonomous vehicles the cost of technology sensors have dropped from $75,000 to $10,000 over the past six years. “Between 2022 and 2025 the cost of the laser sensors will be $400-500,” says Vijay.

He wants to trim costs even more. The future is in vision technology as against the extant radar technology, he says, without disclosing costs. “Earlier, the laser sensors provided a lot of data, which is not useful in commercialisation of the technology. It is good for development.”Experts also believe that lower costs will democratise technology. The situation was similar with automatic cars. Until Maruti launched the AMT gearbox, a new gear technology for automatic cars that was marginally more expensive, less than 1% of cars sold in India were automatic. Today, they make for 5% for car purchases here.

Some features like self-park assist are already available in luxury cars like the Jaguar and the Mercedes, where the car parks itself without any human intervention. “The concept is ready… it is 90% ready. It is very difficult to crash a car with those sensors,” says Deepesh Rathore, London-based analyst of Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors.Unique India’s complexities – ranging from poor marking and signs to traffic that rarely keeps to lanes to cattle on roads – makes autonomous vehicles a money-guzzler. “The Indian challenge is that where will the technology get its reference points from… roads do not have marking nor is there any [respect for] traffic rules,” says Rathore.

That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will play a role, making it an ideal playground for companies such as Bengaluru’s Tonbo Imaging to train its system on unstructured traffic situations. “A lot of companies are trying to train their systems in places like California, where they have good roads and structured environments. How will you take vehicles out of there into unstructured environments... like China and India," asks Ankit Kumar, Tonbo’s CTO and co-founder, who is among the few Indians to have taken part in the famous DARPA Urban Challenge of 2007, the first long distance competition for autonomous cars.

What goes into making a self driving car

AI and ML to the rescue

Hi-Tech Robotic’s Vijay says that vision sensors combined with AI will make autonomous tech really competitive. “Our core sensors are camera sensors, along with we apply computer vision techniques and ML techniques,” he says. The company’s solution: a camera identifies an object and the machine learning module helps recognise it – whether it is a bike, car, a human, or a cow.

If it is a person crossing the road, the solution will stop or steer accordingly. If it is another vehicle, the ML technology will not only recognise the vehicle but also calculate its speed and distance, and apply brakes or slow down.

For example, if it's a large truck, it will keep a wider distance between the two vehicles. In case of agriculture and for Mahindra, the technology will help identify if it's a stack of hay in the corner or scarecrows in the middle of the field.The technology can predict collisions based on driving patterns. In the west, accidents due to lane violations are rare but common here. “n India, we are trying to solve that problem with a couple of million images and videos. We are trying to learn from the data that has been collected over time,” Vijay said.

All autonomous vehicles rely on technology to be self aware of their surroundings and navigate. They usually rely on a radar for detection of objects, people and other traffic, a camera to read signs and traffic lights, and a GPS for basic navigation.Standard cameras can see visible light and colours but will not perform well in night time, rain, fog or snow.
Radar, short for radio detection and ranging, helps with detecting obstacles, their range, velocity and angle. They work in bad weather and poor visibility, too, as they use radio waves for detection. Lidar – short for light detection and ranging – goes a step forward and helps create a precise 3D map of the surroundings. As they use light for detection, Lidars tend to perform poorly as visibility and weather deteriorate.Some of these technologies are being used by startups to built subsystems and technology for autonomous vehicles. Tonbo Imaging, which develops sights and scopes for the defence, has also developed a variant of its imaging system for autonomous vehicles.

Arvind Lakshmikumar, CEO and co-founder, Tonbo Imaging. Photo | Rajesh Subramanian

Arvind Lakshmikumar, CEO and co-founder, Tonbo Imaging. Photo | Rajesh Subramanian

“Our thermal imaging system is not light-based. It operates in the 8-14 micron wavelength range – this means that it can penetrate through fog where a Lidar cannot see. But a Lidar also comes with its own advantages, so we have combined sensor package to take advantage of all systems,” says Arvind Lakshmikumar, CEO and co-founder, Tonbo Imaging, which raised $17 million funding in September.

Disruptor startups

Lidars are expensive and complex mechanisms. They have to rotate to get 360-degree information around the car. Even though today there are solid-state Lidars available in the market which have less moving parts and are more cost effective, companies such as smart electric carmaker Tesla have done away with Lidars and rely on a system consisting of just ultrasonic, radar, and visual imaging cameras for maintaining the current level of autonomy it provides.

Tonbo has developed a sensor package that consists of a visible sensor, a Lidar, and a thermal imager. The data collected by Tonbo's sensing system is analysed, classified and acted upon by the processing unit developed by the company.

But, the big problem is how to deal with a vehicle or object that the system cannot see or detect, says Lakshmikumar. To help with such situation the company has implemented a vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication into its system. V2X communication works directly between a vehicle and other infrastructure, objects, people, and other vehicles in its range. The big challenge for the V2X system is that it will function well only with its wide adoption and standardisation.

Currently, Tonbo is using its system for its military applications like autonomous armoured vehicles and trucks. "Our imaging system for autonomous vehicles have been deployed and are being tested on armoured vehicles right now," says Lakshmikumar.

Tonbo counts Israeli defense manufacturer Rafael Advanced Defense Systems – different from the Dassault Rafael of France – and heavy vehicle maker Caterpillar among its customers. “Over the next year we intend to take this to automotive customers,” says the CEO. Tonbo's systems use Qualcomm chipsets for processing the data; Qualcomm is an investor.

Steradian Semiconductors, a Bengaluru fabless semiconductor company, has developed a high-resolution 28nm millimeter wave imaging radar system, which the company claims is the world's most compact system. “With some clever processing, whatever data is required for autonomous vehicles can be pulled from a radar and visual imaging system,” says co-founder Apu Sivadas. “Our system along with an imaging camera is sufficient for autonomous operations.” The system differentiates a truck from a hatchback by identifying the shape of the vehicles.

Apu Sivadas, co-founder, Steradian Semiconductors, a Bengaluru fabless semiconductor company. 

Apu Sivadas, co-founder, Steradian Semiconductors, a Bengaluru fabless semiconductor company. 

Radars can see through bad weather or visibility. Steradian’s system, which consists of a chip, antennas and a software algorithm that learns and processes data collected by the antennas, offers higher resolution and a better point cloud of objects as compared to traditional systems.

Sivadas says, “Our systems are designed in such a way that per IC we allow for a larger sensor count thereby having a bigger array of antennas which result in better imaging.” The IC designed by the company has a much smaller die making it more cost effective. The company claims that the system provides imaging up to 40 to 50 meters and can detect objects up to 300 meters.

Ritukar Vijay, head of autonomous technologies and business strategy, Hi-Tech Robotic standing with a fully autonomous Mahindra Reva. Photo | Sunny sen

Big names at work

If there is one area even a small introduction of autonomous vehicle technology or so-called Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (or ADAS which the Tata official referred to at the beginning of this story) will help, it is road safety. About 17 people die on Indian roads every hour, according to data from the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways.

Hi-Tech Robotic has started working on preventive measures to reduce collision. There are cameras inside the cabin, which capture the drivers’ actions and reactions. Using vision technology the cameras determine if the driver is sleepy, is looking outside the window, or looking into the mobile. “We start giving a beep. If the driver still doesn’t use brakes, the system applies the brakes. It is the speed which is the factor, but not the distance. It is also based on the speed of the other vehicle,” said Vijay, Hi-Tech Robotic’s head of autonomous technologies and business strategy.

The company’s autonomous trials with buses and trucks – it used Ashok Leyland, Bharat Benz, Mahindra, and Tata Motors vehicles – show encouraging results. “Most accidents happen at night due to drowsiness,” says Rashid Khan, a truck driver for the past seven years. “Once my truck overturned because I fell asleep while driving.”

Khan was recently on a Hi-Tech Robotic trial vehicle driving almost 5,000 km from Delhi to Chennai and back. He said that at night there were a couple of times he felt drowsy and the long beeps helped him stay awake. “It is nice to have these alarms in the trucks… it will minimise accidents,” Khan said.

Mahindra, Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Benz, Maruti Suzuki… almost all among the top automakers in India are on the autonomous bandwagon and have started trials in the past one year. Apart from Tata, carmakers such as Maruti are not ready to disclose plans of their successes with autonomous technology.

Mahindra, for example, is working on shoehorning autonomous technology in all three segments of its vehicles: passenger, commercial, and agriculture, confirmed a source close to the company, requesting anonymity. It has already made some advances with tractors. “Mahindra started with the tractor… it is taking a reverse route, from rural to urban,” said Amit Kaushik, managing director and country head of Detroit-based automotive consulting firm Urban Science.

Kaushik added that in the second phase Mahindra will look at autonomous driving with its vehicles like the Bolero, which is also a big success in the hinterland. The reason for starting with the tractor, the first source said is simple. “The tractor moves on a fixed prescribed route within a set periphery. It can be used for various agricultural use cases like sowing, reaping, ploughing and even giving fertilizers,” the source said.

Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director, had identified autonomous vehicles one of the three aspects of the “future of mobility” (the other two are shared mobility and renewable energy-powered vehicles) at the company’s annual general meeting in 2016. “I believe that the technology is closer than we imagined. But their use will first occur in ring-fenced ‘circuits’...,” Mahindra had said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

German automotive engineering and electronics company Bosch, in partnership with Mahindra & Mahindra's IT services company Tech Mahindra and telecom operator Vodafone, has developed a cloud-based connected vehicle platform called DiGi SENSE for fleet management aimed at trucks, tractors and construction equipment. Bosch develops various subsystems for autonomous cars the world over and in India does its development work in its Bengaluru and Coimbatore centres.

“We started automating the subsystems in our cars some probably around 30-40 years back. Today we have auto braking and steering correction and other such automation in vehicles. The next step is to see whether this automation will work on highways or controlled environments like parking,” R K Shenoy, senior vice president, Robert Bosch Engineering and Business Solutions told FactorDaily.

With the emergence of ADAS features in vehicles, drivers such as Khan will be able to gain capability and understanding how to use them effectively. Recently, Tata Motors and Microsoft announced a strategic partnership to use cloud-based connected vehicle tech based on AI, advanced ML capabilities and Internet of Things to improve driving experiences. “With this technology, Tata Motors will introduce advanced navigation, predictive maintenance, telematics and remote monitoring features through which vehicle owners will receive proactive point-of-interest, shopping and route assist enabling them to achieve more on the go,” said the Tata Motors official quoted earlier.

A second automotive industry source says that Maruti Suzuki has already done six months of trials with a few autonomous technology vendors. The source did not disclose the vendor names but said that the trials were for passenger vehicles.

During the trials a set of three cameras were used – one to identify the object and the other two to estimate the depth and distance of the object. “It just like a human’s eye, where it can perceive the depth or the distance of the object, even the type of cars,” the second source said.

Parts of autonomous technology is already being used by Maruti in the Baleno hatchback it exports to Europe and Japan. It comes with features like collision-mitigation system to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. The Baleno also comes with autonomous emergency braking capabilities, which helps the car stop or slow down to reduce collisions.

Startups like Swaayatt Robots and Flux Auto (both working on solutions for unstructured traffic conditions) and Netradyne that has developed a vision-based driving assistance system are some other companies in the autonomous and driverless vehicle space in India.

Almost all of those interviewed for this story were clear about one thing: fully autonomous vehicles will not be anywhere close to becoming mainstream in India even by 2025 – especially in use cases like you booking a cab on an app and a driverless car reaching your doorstep as Waymo is promising will happen in a few months. Most also agree that instances such as driverless shuttles for campuses, vehicles for mining, and other deployments in constrained areas will take place – or even become common – by 2020. “Assistive driving will be the main deployment in India in the next 4-5 years,” Vijay of Hi-Tech Robotic says.