Today, when one thinks of autonomous mobility, the picture that emerges is of someone summoning a self-driving car straight from a parking lot with just a few clicks on a smartphone.
A large number of automotive and technology giants such as Tesla, Waymo, Uber, GM, Ford, BMW and Mercedes Benz, are working to make this a reality, although it will still be a while before autonomous mobility becomes ubiquitous, especially in a country like India.
In the country, autonomous mobility will probably mean robotic tractors rather than robotic cars, and if tractor maker Escorts has its way, they could get here sooner than thought.
Escorts is developing level-2 autonomous technology, giving tractors the ability to auto-steer and use geo-fencing through the global positioning system (GPS), the first prototype of which it showcased in September. It will, however, require a driver behind the wheel as there is no obstacle avoidance capability yet.
The company is planning to ready the technology for sale sometime in financial year 2021, said Ashwani Malik, the chief technology officer and head of R&D at Escorts.
The system will allow customers to opt for specific tools, such as geo-fencing or auto-steering or both. The tractors will retail for premiums of about 25-35% over their sticker price, and could be useful for large-hold farmers and agri contractors.
“The tractors are fitted with cameras for a 360-degree view of the farm and the farm implements being used on the tractor. In the next level of autonomy, these cameras will help in auto-detection and avoidance of any obstacles,” Malik said.
In April last year, rival Mahindra & Mahindra too showcased a semi-autonomous tractor and revealed plans for a fully-autonomous one in the near future. The company, which is now the largest tractor manufacturer in the world by volumes, is thinking of taking farm mechanisation to a whole-new level.
When contacted, M&M declined to comment on the current progress of its autonomous technology.
Today, a few automakers and vendors are looking at discrete manufacturing, a method where mass production of customised products is possible, which conveyor belts of yore did not allow.
Imagine a line of barges, each carrying a vehicle body that needs to dock at a series of assembly stations to have parts fitted on to it. With discrete manufacturing, some of these steps can be skipped without rolling through every sub-assembly. This saves time and decreases complexity.
Companies such as Ati Motors are looking to use autonomous technology to service such a need.
Ati is building an automonous cargo vehicle that will run inside large factory complexes.
ATI’s solution can immediately replace a trolley carrying heavy parts that are moved from one place to another, either by humans or using a manually operated tug. The firm has deployed its prototype solution at the factories of two automotive OEMs and has been asked to onboard as a vendor by at least two large firms, none of whom it is at liberty to name.
“We don’t want to be in a space that’s heavily regulated. Before we attempted fully autonomous driving on public roads with passengers, we thought we’d try this,” said Vinay V, co-founder and one of the creators of the erstwhile low cost Simputer tablet.
“Initially, we were targeting the US and European markets, but we were surprised to see demand for our solution coming from within India as well.”
Designed to haul loads, the firm has reimagined the use of a vehicle with autonomous technology, rather than retrofitting it to an existing vehicle. It is fully electric, uses LIDAR (light detection and ranging) and other sensors to navigate autonomously.
“In the US or Europe, our solution could save companies costs as it could replace a human who operates a tug today. But in India, manufacturers want to remove variability and bring in more productivity and efficiency,” Vinay said. “It is not a labour replacing technology, they want to make sure they are utilising to the highest possible level.”
Robotic tractors, mining equipment and specialised non-road vehicles are expected to debut in India far sooner than self-driving cars, but firms are devising even on-road applications keeping in mind the nature of the technology, which requires large amounts of local data and training.
All new cars and heavy vehicles sold in India by 2022 will need to be equipped with an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS), including automatic braking, collision avoidance and lane departure warning, said Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari in September last year. The move is seen as a first step towards rolling out autonomous vehicles, as ADAS systems packaged with more advanced algorithms form the basis of all autonomous systems today.
Flux Auto, a Bengaluru-based company, is building an autonomous truck that can work on highways.
The company has conducted a 10-kilometre-long test with its Level-3 autonomous prototype which is capable of driving in a lane, maintaining a steady speed, slowing down or speeding up based on traffic, and detecting and avoiding collisions.
Although the driver will still need to be ready to take control when the system cannot cope with a situation, it can take a lot of the stress out of driving long distances.
“We’re not looking to build vehicles and we will look to work with the manufacturers or retrofit vehicles of a large fleet operator,” said Pranav Manpuria, co-founder and CEO of Flux Auto. “We are already working with the government and defence forces, and are also in talks with a few OEMs.”
Mumbai-based FishEyeBox Innovation Lab claims it is building a level-4 autonomous car , on par with what a few global auto giants have already done.
“There are different levels of autonomy and we’re not going to jump to level-5 in one day. Indian auto companies have already started moving towards this and we’re working with a few of them,” said Pinaki Laskar, CEO of FishEyeBox Innovation Lab, adding the biggest hindrance is lack of regulations to conduct tests on-road.
“Autonomous driving is the only way for India to bring down its road accident deaths, and the government and other stakeholders have started realising this,” he said.
In the interim, the company is hoping to be a supplier for ADAS systems, and hopes to make solutions ready to take on giants such as Bosch which are currently suppliers of such safety systems to global carmakers.
Flux and FishEyeBox Innovation Lab are going after the market for autonomous driving as it requires a lot of local training of algorithms, making it impossible for someone like Tesla to straightway take vehicles trained on Silicon Valley roads for deployment in Bengaluru.
“What do you do when someone in front of you wants to break traffic rules? No amount of so-called teaching is going to make the algorithms ready for that,” Laskar said. “So, it needs to learn on its own.”