A team of makers in Bhopal, slated to be the first smart city in India, has come together to develop an autonomous self-driving vehicle technology tailor-made for Indian roads with their peculiar problems and chaotic traffic.
The team is led by Sanjeev Sharma, an IIT-Roorkee alumnus, who founded Swaayatt Robots in 2015. “Swaayatt” means “autonomous” in Sanskrit.
The company, which is working on a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle technology for India, started developing its first prototype vehicle — a retrofitted Mahindra Bolero — in 2014, and completed the build in February this year.
“So far, no one has developed algorithms that can handle the kind of unpredictable traffic found in India. The complexity of Indian traffic is way too high” — Sanjeev Sharma, founder of Swaayatt Robots
According to Sharma, autonomous vehicle technology developed for markets outside India is unlikely to work well in the country, given the often bad road condition and unorganised, unruly traffic. “So far, no one has developed algorithms that can handle the kind of unpredictable traffic found in India. The complexity of Indian traffic is way too high,” says Sharma.
Drive in India, make in India
For the past two years, the team at Swaayatt Robots has been running simulated drives using the algorithm they’ve developed. Recently, they started doing trial runs in their prototype vehicle in the vicinity of their office, and will soon begin testing the prototype vehicle on highways.
“We have received permission from the magistrate and local authorities to test the prototype in Bhopal in restricted areas. We are also currently in the process of getting approval to test the vehicle on Indian highways,” he says.
During the trials, even though the vehicle is being driven autonomously by the onboard computer, Sharma rides in front as an emergency backup.
“We manually converted the vehicle to drive-by-wire, so the mechanical hardware installed by us is not as good as the ones found in factory-produced vehicles. We have contacted vehicle manufacturers like Mahindra to get our hands on a drive-by-wire test vehicle,” says Sharma.
Recently, they started doing trial runs in their prototype vehicle in the vicinity of their office, and will soon begin testing the prototype vehicle on highways
To convert the Bolero into a drive-by-wire vehicle, the team retrofitted it with a custom-made wheel encoder that measures the vehicle’s speed and acceleration; a displacement unit for wheel odometry; a gear-shifting mechanism; a clutch-pushing mechanism; an accelerator controller; a steering controller; and mounts around the vehicle for cameras and sensors.
Developing the prototype has been an expensive, bootstrapped project for Sharma, and he is currently in talks with investors for funding to help with future development.
“The plan is to develop a working proof-of-concept framework by April, and a full working prototype by October. Converting the proof-of-concept into a full prototype will require some investment,” says Sharma.
Revving up his dreams
Sharma got inspired to design an autonomous vehicle technology, especially for India, after watching a video of the DARPA Grand Challenge — one of the most popular competitions for autonomous vehicles in the world. He returned to India in September 2014, after declining a PhD programme offer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and founded Swaayatt Robots.
Developing the prototype has been an expensive, bootstrapped project for Sharma, and he is currently in talks with investors for funding to help with future development
Sharma’s interest in robotics, however, goes further back. He’s done an internship in motion planning at Israel’s Ariel University. “In Israel, I worked on motion planning under Dr Zvi Shiller — it is a subfield of robotics that allows the robot decide on how to move in an environment. We developed an algorithm that actually outperformed the existing motion planner in 2012,” he says.
He also has a masters degree in computational science from the University of Alberta in Canada, where his topic of research was reinforcement learning, an area of machine learning based on behaviourist psychology.
Self-driving vehicles in India
This is not the first attempt by a company at building autonomous vehicles in India. Many maker teams, startups, as well as large auto manufacturers are taking a shot at it.
As of now, it looks like Tesla will the first company to launch a car with self-driving capability in India. In April 2016, the company had started taking bookings from Indian customers for its $35,000 (over Rs 23.5 lakh) Model 3 sedan.
A team from Indian IT company Tata Elxsi is also developing self-driving technology.
Auto manufacturer Mahindra has also developed a prototype of a driverless tractor at Mahindra Research Valley in Chennai.
Autonomous vehicles may hit Indian roads soon, but we’ll have to wait and watch whether they are successful in the country.
Photos: Swaayatt Robots
Updated at 5.10pm on March 16, 2017, to correct the fact that Sanjeev Sharma declined a PhD programme offer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The story earlier said that he was pursuing a PhD. The error is regretted.
Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.