In September 2017, I drove to Kathmandu from Bengaluru and back with two friends. It was an eye-opening trip—when it came to the degree of disconnect in awareness, both cultural and infrastructural.

We put a dashcam and recorded almost the entirety of over 5,500km. Looking over these images, we found obstacles including cows, horses and trucks coming straight at us (no surprises there) that show how complicated navigating even the national highway network can get.

It’s tough enough for humans. Now imagine asking a poor machine to drive itself.

Over the past few years, automotive and mapping companies around the world have been racing to dominate the autonomous vehicles, or AV, market. (More specifically, advanced driver-assistance systems, or ADAS in industry speak.)

Automobile makers and tech companies are hard at work in the US—as well as China and, to a lesser extent, Europe—launching self-driving features in cars and running simulations and extensive trials. Governments in these countries are also working alongside, measuring the impact on the economy, putting together legislation and preparing their societies to adopt a potentially massive shift in mobility.

India, however, is nowhere on the radar, with transport minister Nitin Gadkari publicly stating that the government will not allow AVs. This is a mistake.

Research shows that the potential impact of autonomous vehicles on the economy, peoples’ productivity, the environment, urban development and public transportation is nothing to sneeze at. And not to mention road safety—a 2017 report from the road ministry estimates that over 140,000 people died in road accidents in India that year. Letting machines assist in or take over driving can help cut down that number significantly (global studies have found that as many as 90% of accidents are due to human error).

To get there though, it will take time. And lots of it. India needs to get started right now. Especially since Indian conditions pose distinct challenges to driverless vehicles—our highway escapades are testament to that.

Potholes, bovines and chaos

India’s roads are notoriously bad, and noticeably terrible after the monsoons every year. A lot of this is an engineering problem. According to the basic road statistics report in 2015-16, the latest found on the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways website, only 62.5% of the total road network in the country is paved. Even though the road ministry’s statistics show that a majority of roads are either concrete-paved or bituminous, quality and maintenance are poor, as any motorist would testify.

AUTHOR

Sajjad Anwar

Sajjad is a cartographer and programmer. He leads products and strategy at Development Seed to make open data and tools more accessible to governments and institutions. Previously, he helped build the foundation of Mapbox's data team in Bengaluru, and is actively involved in open data movements in India.

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