smart technology

IITs are on a quest to develop self-driving cars for India’s crazy roads

All the hardware and technology will need some serious adaptation for India’s extraordinary streets.

At the moment, SeDriCa isn’t much of a looker: it resembles a couple of stacked cardboard boxes precariously balanced atop three wheels. It’s not much of a mover either. Mounted with a beacon light, the vehicle ungracefully rambles along narrow, marked routes, usually on playgrounds, at a reluctant pace.

But Ankit Sharma and Rishabh Choudhary, final year students at the Indian Institute of Technology -Bombay, are convinced that the ungainly three-wheeler can provide the foundation for developing a driverless car for Indian streets. The duo leads the SeDriCa (short for self-driving car) project at the institute’s Unmesh Mashruwala Innovation Cell, where successive batches of students from multiple engineering streams have been working to develop an autonomous car since 2011.

They aren’t the only ones. For over a decade, IIT-Kharagpur, too, has been working to develop autonomous ground vehicles; similar research is underway in IIT-Kanpur. At India’s most elite engineering schools, the dream of driverless cars on Indian roads is turning into something of an obsession.

But for all their research into autonomous vehicles, all three IITs are working separately with scarcely any collaboration between the teams. With years of experience on the subject, it might make sense for these institutions to work together.

Nevertheless, it’s a useful fixation to have at a time when global carmakers and tech giants are throwing money and resources to develop self-driving cars. But all that hardware and technology will need some serious adaptation to be able to work on India’s extraordinary streets, where bovines, cars, pedestrians, and other assorted jalopies compete for space.

Made in India

In 2016, SeDriCa ranked fourth out of 36 teams from across the world at the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, an annual student contest held at Oakland University. The competition involves avoiding obstacles, navigating a track while staying between the white lanes, and reaching specific global positioning system points.


SeDriCa, which measures two feet by three feet, has an on-board GPS device, an inertial measurement unit that calculates motion and wheel encoders that track movement. A vision system on the vehicle is used to detect the lanes and LiDAR, a remote sensing technology that uses laser light, is employed to steer clear of static obstacles. All the data from these devices is collected and analysed by a set of algorithms to guide the vehicle along the required route.

The IIT-Bombay team is now working to adapt this technology for a small car for the Driverless Car Challenge of the Rise Prize, an innovation contest under the aegis of the Mahindra Group. Thirty one shortlisted teams must build a driverless car for Indian conditions, which will first be tested in a controlled environment, like a university campus, and then on city streets.

Sharma, Choudhary, and the rest of the team are still waiting to get their hands on the Mahindra E20, a four-door electric car that they’ll try and transform into a self-driving vehicle. After their experience with SeDriCa, they’re sure of pulling it off with around six months of testing.

Already, they are trying out some of the technology on the SeDriCa, which they’ll need to fine-tune on the E20. “The algorithms that we have implemented, they are working,” explained Choudhary, 21, a chemical engineering student who is the team lead on the Rise Prize. “For example, our positioning system is working on the roads. Even when the road is covered by trees, we have good positioning.”

“We are working on other sensors also,” he added. “We have completed pedestrian detection, so it can detect pedestrians and some types of vehicles.” Much more remains to be done, including developing and testing the vehicle’s ability to recognise and deal with traffic lights, road signs, and speed breakers.

From mine rescue to the road

The challenges aren’t much different for the Autonomous Ground Vehicle Research Group at IIT-Kharagpur, also competing for the Rise Prize. The Autonomous Ground Vehicle traces its roots to research that began at the institute around 2004. “There was a need for coming up with an autonomous rescue robot for mining applications,” recalled Debashish Chakravarty, an associate professor at the IIT’s mining engineering department, who heads the project.

By 2008, a group of PhD students from the computer science department got to work on building a driverless car, which then led to an IIT-Kharagpur team participating in the 2012 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition. “We actually have a test purpose robot, which was built from scratch and is used on a small portion of the campus road to run autonomously,” said Chakravarty. “And now, we are trying to fine-tune the technology for Indian roads.”

In 2013, a group of three students from IIT-Kharagpur spun off a company, Auro Robotics, to build autonomous shuttles for transportation within campuses, such as universities and corporate parks. Auro, backed by Y Combinator, a prominent Silicon Valley accelerator-turned-seed fund, is already testing driverless shuttles at California’s Santa Clara University. Last year, it raised $2 million to roll out autonomous shuttles across US universities.

Meanwhile, at IIT-Kanpur, Gaurav Pandey, an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department, is also on the bandwagon. A former research scientist at Ford’s automated driving group based in Dearborn, Michigan, Pandey is currently working on developing autonomous vehicle technology for a foreign carmaker. He declined to provide details of the project, which is backed by IIT-Kanpur, due to confidentiality considerations.

“I am mostly looking at the problem from the western perspective right now, so I haven’t really thought about how it will be translated to an Indian condition,” Pandey explained. “But we have started to look at it.”

“We have another project where we have outfitted a car with multiple sensors that are being used by these autonomous cars and we have started collecting data from outside the IIT-Kanpur campus, and within the campus also,” he added. Pandey and his team are collecting camera and LiDAR data from these trips to understand how traffic in Indian conditions differs from roads in the US and elsewhere.

After all, the driverless technology that works in California will scarcely suffice for Kanpur’s Chaman Ganj.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.