Autonomous vehicles are all the rage in Silicon Valley right now. As someone said, smart cars are disrupting Silicon Valley and not the other way round. Everyone wants to try their hand at making cars drive around without drivers, thus changing many industries on their head.
What Uber wants to do in the smart car space gives you a good idea of why everyone is interested in smart cars. Uber’s grand plan is to make the driver redundant and use the full installed capacity of the car. Right now, most cars are on the road only for a fraction of the time, the rest of which is wasted in car parks. Uber wants to gainfully employ these cars to make money for its owners when they are at home or office. If it can get autonomous cars to work, then each car will drive more and ultimately the world will need fewer cars.
The impact could be huge. A report prepared by Boston Consulting Group in association with the World Economic Forum says “widespread urban adoption of self-driving vehicles could result in a 60 per cent drop in the number of cars on city streets, an 80 per cent or greater decrease in tailpipe emissions, and 90 per cent fewer road accidents”.
Though the first autonomous cars are already on the roads, there are two things which are pivotal to make this technology work — uninterrupted connectivity and reliable maps. We are getting really close to fulfilling both these requirements in most parts of the world. While the fact that manned cars still drive around like headless chickens might make India a later stage market for autonomous vehicles, we might end up being an early stage market for these same technologies being used to make driving safer.
Companies like local mapmaker MapMyIndia are already working on creating solutions for Indian problems. MapMyIndia Executive Director & CTO Rohan Verma says his New Delhi-based company focuses on providing self sustained high-definition maps in India.
“They enable safety without promising autonomy by telling a car about a hazard or a lane change much before the car reaches there. The power of connectivity can be brought in to update these maps realtime,” explains Verma. MapMyIndia is crunching anonymous data from GPS units across the country to add more data like potholes, sharp turns etc and augment the static maps already available in the car units. This is a layer of data still not available on online maps.
Incidentally, other companies working on self driving vehicles are also investing on high-definition maps. In fact, Uber has got Brian McClendon, who was one of the top Google Maps guys, to join its Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh. The taxi aggregator, which now depends on Google Maps, seems to be working on its own 3D maps version to enable its cars to drive on their own whenever the time comes. While self driving cars will also depend on sensors and cameras to see what is happening around it, its grid for movement will be based on high resolution maps.
McClendon says collection of data is useful not just for billing purposes but also to add value to maps, often in terms of making the drive safer. So gyroscopes on smartphones with the Uber app can potentially send data on whether a driver is speeding or swerving “per driver, per location per time. “This can result in maps of unsafe areas in cities,” he says adding that this data can also help change driver behaviour for the better. He says the next big challenge in terms of self driving cars will be the ability to predict what an object, for instance a pedestrian, will do. “The long term goal is high resolution maps which was updated as frequently as every three minutes so that the car behind know there is an issue here. That is the future.”