Self-driving cars and prospects for India

A nuTonomy self-driving taxi drives on the road in its public trial in Singapore August 25, 2016.  

Last month, nuTonomy, a small firm founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, made history of sorts when it introduced a self-driving taxi service in a business district in Singapore, beating Uber. Such testing is but a logical next step for a technology that could revolutionise the transport industry worldwide, according to Karl Iagnemma, a co-founder of nuTonomy, who spoke to The Hindu from his office in the U.S. about the prospects for cars powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

Singapore was the obvious choice of venue for allowing members of the public to hail the nuTonomy taxi, Mr. Iagnemma said. This was especially so given that the Singapore government views self-driving vehicles as potentially having a positive impact on the economy, transportation efficiency, and on public health and safety of transport, he said.

Singapore also provides several other ingredients for successful testing of self-driving cars — a capable regulatory environment, sound infrastructure, favourable weather patterns and good driving practices and adherence to driving rules.

All of this means Singapore is also likely to be the first market for self-driving cars.

Karl Iagnemma

Indian roads

Asked about how he viewed the prospects for India, Mr. Iagnemma explained that despite road conditions being different in most Indian cities, there “definitely is” scope for self-driven cars finding their way onto Indian roads because the technology was likely to enter the market through tightly-bounded geographical regions, or in specific-use cases.

For example, self-driving cars may first debut on the road between an airport and a central business district in a city, Mr. Iagnemma said, however adding, “Overnight you will not see thousands of self-driving cars in New Delhi.”

Simply put, the AI technology today is nowhere near sophisticated enough to handle driving in India, yet there may well be a measured pace of deployment in the country, he said.

Liability concern

A complex question that has doggedly followed the self-driven cars adventure worldwide, including in the U.S., is how in the event of an accident, will legal liability be decided.

A notable case from earlier this year was the collision between an autonomous car of Google’s and a bus in Silicon Valley. It was an accident in which no one was hurt, and the fault was not deemed to be that of the bus, yet it left the main question of liability unanswered.

According to Mr. Iagnemma, even when the AI software is high-performance, stable and robust, “there will, unfortunately, be accidents from time to time. Some of those will not be the fault of the vehicle or the software but some probably will be, because of failures of both the hardware or software or unpredictable events.”

Singapore itself does not, apparently, have a “firm” regulatory framework to deal with liability relating to self-driving cars.

Yet Singapore holds out a positive answer to another question that arises out of the use of AI — how does a society deal with the disruption caused by capital and technology essentially substituting for labour. As it turns out in Singapore there is concern that the taxi and bus fleets are manned by ageing populations and also there is a shortage of workers to operate these services during off-peak hours. This means the likes of nuTonomy may well end up filling a labour market gap.

Positive benefits

The contrast with India is stark. Nevertheless, enormous positive benefits could accrue. As Mr. Iagnemma pointed out, there is a “massive potential improvement in public health” that could come from helping curb road deaths. Indian road fatalities rose by 5 per cent in 2015, according to reports. With the number of total fatalities at 146,000, it amounted to 400 deaths a day.

Read the full interview, > here

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 4:56:42 AM |

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