Indian cab-hailing leader Ola Cabs has started work on integrating assisted-driving features into Ola Play, its connected car programme, and is hiring technology professionals with autonomous or self-driving car coding skills, three sources have told FactorDaily.
“There are two parts to (Ola Play). One is the customer-facing part and the other is the driver part,” said a source close to the company. “Ola is building a complete connected car ecosystem with Ola Play… Some self-driving skills can be a part of it.”
A second source said that it is too early to say exactly which areas Ola will implement autonomous technologies. Still, much of the initial work will be towards making driving safer – like an alarm to alert in event of a collision, pedestrian warnings, an over-speeding indicator, and brake-assistive systems.
Ola has hired close to 20 professionals with autonomous driving skills.
The Ola Play platform, said to be a pet project of Ola co-founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal, is seen within the company as much beyond a connected entertainment system as customers see it. “Ola has a lot of bets on Ola Play. Aggarwal is very keen on the development of Ola Play,” said the first source.
Ola denied the new push. “Ola has not hired resources to work in the ‘autonomous space’,” Ola said replying to an email query.
But, a person working in the training industry said recruitments were on. Praveen Kumar, director – operations (India), at popular online training platform Udacity, said Ola has hired people who have completed its popular three-term course in self-driving technologies.
“People who go through these courses have a deep understanding of computer vision and deep learning… The code that these students write are tested on self-drive cars we have in the US,” Kumar said.
Udacity, which offers a nine-month nano degree in self-driving car technology, has roots in artificial intelligence and autonomous technologies. Its co-founder, Sebastian Thrun, is one of the top names in the world of AI and was the founder of Google X, the secretive R&D facility of the eponymous search giant. He is also the founder of Google’s self-driving car team.
A third source, now working with Ola, confirmed what the other two anonymous sources said, adding the project is housed in the Ola Play team.
The Ola Play (or Ola connected car platform) team is headed by Ankit Jain, an IIT-Bombay graduate with an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was hired in 2016 from consultancy McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco.
Ola’s global rivals Uber and Lyft have invested time and money in self-driven cars. Automakers are working on similar technologies, as well, with carmaker Ford planning to bring a fleet of self-driven cars on the road by 2021 (see graphic below).
In India, Ola might be one of the many players experimenting with parts of autonomous car technology, which include both technology companies and carmakers. FactorDaily recently looked at how startups and carmakers are doubling down on the autonomous vehicles.
In October 2016, Ola had launched Ola Play along with SUV-maker Mahindra and Mahindra, which is one of the front-runners in autonomous technology in India. Mahindra also supplies Ola electric cars. Autonomous or assisted-driving cars are better suited to electric cars.
Recently, Ola partnered with software giant Microsoft to improve the cab-driving experience. Microsoft is said to provide Office 365, voice-assisted controls and Azure cloud platform. Ola will also use Microsoft’s AI and Internet of Things technologies to improve the quality of driving. Details are not known.
Kumar said that professionals who are trained in Udacity’s self-driven technologies courses have a good understanding of AI and assistive technology. He added, without commenting on Ola’s plans, that these technologies are very useful in building driver assistive products.
FactorDaily had reported earlier that Ola plans to use Ola Play for out-of-home advertising to boost revenue. The screens, which are used for watching movies, live television and listening to music, will double up as digital advertising screens.
Ola’s investments in harnessing talent with self driving skills can be in line with driver safety and passenger safety. Every four minutes a person dies in an accident on Indian roads.
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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.