Dear Mr Gadkari, Why So Passive Towards Autonomous Vehicles?
India does not have many autonomous vehicles, but is it too soon to give up entirely on the technology?
Respected Mr Gadkari,
I write to you in your capacity as the Minister of Road Transport and Highways. This letter hopes to initiate a meaningful dialogue on a technology that can save thousands of lives annually, namely, autonomous vehicles. With the recent incident of an Uber autonomous vehicle (AV) killing a pedestrian, it is likely that the government and public perception would get prejudiced against such vehicles.
This letter makes a case for why India should embrace AVs despite the hiccups that are likely to arise along the road.
On 19 February 2018, I sent an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways ("MoRTH") requesting the following information:
- Whether driverless vehicles are presently permitted to operate on roads in India;
- Whether authorisation from MoRTH or any other government authority is required prior to operating driverless vehicles on roads in India;
- The definition of driverless vehicles;
- Whether driverless vehicles only include vehicles that can operate autonomously without any human intervention, or even those vehicles which can perform aspects of driving without involvement of a driver, such as automatic braking;
- Whether MoRTH has conducted a study on the impact of driverless vehicles on jobs and employment in India. Copies of the same; and,
- Whether the operation of driverless vehicles on roads in India will be banned.
The objective was to understand the government's position on AVs and to know whether any efforts were underway to regulate such vehicles in India.
MoRTH sent its reply on 13 March 2018, in which it noted that it had no proposals for operating driverless vehicles on roads in India. That’s it. An ambiguous, one sentence response to all the questions raised.
I have no qualms about the response itself; the issue lies in the sentiment that evokes a response of this nature. The fact that the Ministry has no plans for operating AVs does not come as a surprise given that you said in July 2017 that driverless vehicles would not be allowed in India because they would lead to a loss of jobs.
The concern of automation causing unemployment is legitimate, one that experts around the world are currently grappling with.
However, the response received seemed almost apathetic, as if AVs are not even on the government's agenda for the foreseeable future.
AVs might seem like a distant dream, given the overpopulation and the state of traffic in the country. Compared with more pressing concerns like traffic management and road safety, regulating AVs can be seen as being an academic issue that will only become relevant decades from now. A discussion on the topic is met with cynicism because, as most perceive, AVs are just not real enough in India at present.
There are two problems with this perception. First, it perpetuates a self-fulfilling cycle that everyone believes AVs are far from reality, leading to regulatory inaction that further stalls progress.
Archaic laws and lack of government support create a ‘technological chilling effect’, hindering growth of disruptive technologies that can positively impact society. A reason for why there appears to be little progress in the AVs’ sector is because there is no framework to incentive R&D, innovation, and investment.
Second, the claim that there is nothing happening in the AV market is simply untrue. Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz Ltd, a company based in Gurugram, has developed and is operating a completely autonomous shuttle, which can transport people without a human driver.
A start-up called Flux Auto has tested an autonomous truck that can perform operations such as cruise control, collision avoidance and lane maintenance. Fisheyebox, a Kolkata-based start-up, has converted an ordinary Maruti Celerio into an autonomous one, which works with limited human intervention.
The technology behemoth Infosys has also manufactured and operated a driverless golf cart in its Bengaluru campus. These are but a few promising examples of the work that is currently being undertaken in the field.
The law, unfortunately, is ill-equipped to deal with this progress.
The Motor Vehicles Act allows “persons” with licenses to drive motor vehicles in public places and the scheme of the Act indicates that “persons” only includes natural persons, ie human beings, and not artificial ones such as corporations. Thus, operating AVs in public places is illegal under the current law.
There are also no laws governing ancillary aspects such as testing, safety standards and levels of permissible automation. And, as is apparent from the RTI response, no efforts have been initiated to address this legal vacuum.
The indifferent approach of the government is at odds with the proactive measures being adopted internationally. The UK government has commissioned a three-year review of driving laws to encourage development, testing and driving of AVs, and with the objective of bringing such vehicles to public roads by 2021.
The US House of Representatives has passed a bill for the Self Drive Act which aims to ensure safety of AVs' design, construction, and performance by encouraging testing and deployment of such vehicles. Likewise, Germany and China have also taken measures to regulate AVs, with the latter allowing the technology company Baidu to test AVs on city streets.
The reason behind countries incentivising growth of the AV industry is simple – AVs will save lives. As per data provided by MoRTH, road accidents result in over one lakh injuries and thousands of deaths each year, at an astounding rate of one death every three and a half minutes.
The Ministry lists over-speeding, fatigue, and wrong-side driving as some of the prime causes of road accidents. AVs can change this – unlike humans, they will not break laws or drive rash, and will also not be affected by factors such as stress, fatigue and lack of attention. With proper training and testing, AVs can significantly reduce accidents and make the roads safer.
I understand that this claim might seem far-fetched in light of the Uber accident. Yet, the incident does not impeach AVs. No one believes that these vehicles will be completely safe and prevent accidents altogether; the argument has always been that they will reduce accidents since most accidents are attributable to human follies. With AVs having clocked millions of miles driving on roads and having resulted in two known major accidents, these vehicles have stayed true to the claims made so far.
But your concern about jobs still stands, Mr Gadkari. This concern, however, is not endemic to the AV sector; it spans across areas ranging from farming to surgery.
Most people are at the risk of losing their jobs to automation in the coming decades, and experts have suggested solutions such as providing a universal basic income and imposing tax on robots. The correct approach is not to hinder progress; it is to find ways through which humans can coexist with technology.
Further, AVs might not even cause mass unemployment. As the RTI response demonstrates, the government has not conducted any study or relied on evidence to show that they would. While it might seem intuitive that AVs would take away drivers' jobs, things might function very differently in reality.
Even if vehicles become fully autonomous, drivers would be present to override the vehicle if something goes wrong and in case of emergencies.
Human oversight would reassure passengers and minimise the risk of the vehicles' networks being compromised. It would, thus, be premature to remove humans from the equation just yet.
Also, as we have seen with technologies that gave rise to similar concerns in the past, such as computers, AVs will create new employment opportunities and become another step in the process of societal evolution.
I realise that this has been a long read, Mr Gadkari, but I beg your indulgence on a final point. Where do we go from here?
MoRTH should adopt a stepwise plan, beginning from constituting a committee of experts that tracks technological advancements and develops strategies to encourage progress.
The committee should also formulate recommendations on difficult issues such as civil and criminal liability in case of accidents, impact on jobs, training and operating procedures, testing standards, pilot programmes and on-road integration.
A regulatory sandbox could also be created whereby AVs can be tested in real-life scenarios within defined geographical boundaries, a practice that is currently being followed in Singapore.
Eventually, a regulatory framework should be introduced to legalise operation of AVs on roads, by either amending the Motor Vehicles Act or introducing a separate legislation that deals exclusively with AVs.
This process is likely to take several years; perhaps even as much time as it will take for AVs to become mainstream. Instead of waiting for technology to lead the way, it would behoove the government to work with the technology and incentivise its growth.
(The author is a technology lawyer working in Bengaluru and he can be reached at @essjeydee The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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