New Delhi: Visitors to IIT-Delhi may find a 5G-enabled driverless vehicle shuttling on campus six months from now — a vehicle equipped with a tailor-made computer programme that prepares it to handle India’s unique driving conditions.
The team behind the initiative has worked on developing the algorithm for over three years, and is almost ready to test the technology on roads for the first time.
The battery-operated autonomous car will initially shuttle between the visitor’s parking area and the administrative block — about a kilometre-long stretch — on the IIT-Delhi campus.
The vehicle that will be used for initial trials is an open electrical one that resembles a golf cart. It will have the capacity to seat four people and will travel at 20 km/h.
“The car will be able to detect the lanes on the road. It is able to do what is known as ‘global planning’ — that is, it can plan a route on the map once the user chooses the destination,” said Sunil Jha, a faculty member in IIT-Delhi’s mechanical engineering department.
“It will also be able to do ‘local planning’, that is, detect obstacles and overcome them,” he added.
A separate group of researchers from the electrical and chemical engineering departments is working on developing the batteries and charging stations.
The car will be equipped with sensors in the front and back that will continuously look for obstacles in the path. An automatic brake linked to these sensors will bring the vehicle to a stop in case there is a collision risk.
“The sensors and most of the hardware is not developed in India,” Jha told ThePrint. However, the team has developed the computer code that would make driverless cars possible in the Indian conditions.
“In western countries, roads always have clear markers. But in India, sometimes, these markers may be covered by dust or may not even be there on some roads,” Jha said.
“We are also looking to make these technologies more affordable. So, rather than going for very expensive hardware, we are concentrating on making more efficient algorithms,” Jha added.
He claimed that autonomous cars made by companies such as Google cost up to Rs 2-3 crore in some cases. “We are trying to keep this cost of autonomy between Rs 15-20 lakh, during the prototyping phase. Once production is scaled up, the cost will come down further,” Jha said.
Researchers are also adding 5G connectivity to the system, a technology that will come into play when the wireless network gains wider currency.
The faster connectivity afforded by 5G will reduce the response time for autonomous cars, which means they can quickly make decisions and take action with minimum human intervention.
How safe is it?
To ensure safety, IIT-Delhi is using an open vehicle with no doors. Since the vehicle will be running at a very low speed, passengers will be able to easily step out should the autonomous system encounter glitches.
While Jha said there is no chance of the vehicle colliding with any obstacle, a human controller will be on board at all times to monitor its behaviour. The researchers are also planning to add a separate safety system to stop the car in case of a snag.
After the first phase of testing, the researchers will try the vehicle on longer stretches. The number of vehicles will be increased in subsequent tests.
“The perspective around autonomous cars in India is often negative because people think that it will make a lot of people jobless,” Jha said.
However, the primary focus of the IIT-Delhi project is not personal use or regular commute, Jha said, adding that there are many strategic applications for autonomous cars, including in the fields of mining, defence, tourism as well as institutional campuses, especially to assist those with disabilities.