May 22, 2024

India won’t let AIs rule the road

As someone without a driver’s licence, the day when artificial intelligence takes the wheel is going to be pretty sweet. Taking into account the fact that we’re some years away from commercial viability, they’re going to be prohibitively expensive at first, and they’ll initially require a qualified driver as co-pilot, I’m pencilling in a driverless ride as a 75th birthday present to myself in 2059.

But I say that as someone in the UK, which has a clear roadmap to a driverless future and plans for motorway tests in 2019. If you’re reading this in India, the future looks even less clear. At the very best, India will be some years behind the West in driverless technology, at worst, it’s never going to adopt it.

“We won’t allow driverless cars in India,” said transport minister Nitin Gadkari. “I am very clear on this. In a country where you have unemployment, you can’t have a technology that ends up taking people’s jobs.”

In fact, India is pushing in the opposite direction on that front, with plans to open 100 facilities to train 22,000 more commercial human drivers over the next few years.

You may interpret Gadkari’s words as a guarantee of a job for life for those who manage to get trained at the facilities, but he did give himself enough wiggle room for the classic political U-turn: “Maybe some years down the line we won’t be able to ignore it, but as of now, we shouldn’t allow it.”

Indeed, one sceptic on the government’s driverless position is congressman Gaurav Pandhi, who suggested that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position is a Luddite one that will be forced to give way eventually:

The position that driverless cars take jobs is a good one for governments to adopt as it shows a political class prepared to stand up to big business to protect citizens. But in India, the truth might be slightly more prosaic: Indian roads just aren’t built for AIs to easily understand. Bloomberg has a good article on this, explaining that pedestrians weaving through traffic, lanes merging without warning, a lack of road signs and stray cattle create a road system that leaves artificial intelligence baffled.

What does this look like in practice? Well, this extract from a driverless test ride in Bangalore gives you a taste:

“As the car pulled up the required four metres short of the vehicle in front, irate drivers honked incessantly and yelled out abuse. A cow meandering into its path triggered another halt, as did the flinging of a massive banana stem out onto the road by a shop owner. As a limbless beggar wheeled his crude platform close, the car’s engine stopped abruptly.”

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