Why India Will Tell Us When Self-Driving Cars Will Hit The US

The world's wildest and fastest-growing car market can teach us everything about autonomy.

Mallory / The Drive / Getty Images

When will self-driving cars arrive? Depends on who you ask. The VCs believe what they’re told by their portfolio companies. Automakers will say anything to inflate their stock price relative to Tesla. Self-driving evangelists and “keynote speakers” on LinkedIn? Broken clocks not yet right even once. The media? There are still less than ten people writing intelligently on a market expected to hit $7 trillion.

If you doubt self-driving cars are coming, you haven’t paid attention to the rate of human ingenuity and technological progress. Conversely, if you believe more than 1% of the statements coming out of Detroit, Germany, Japan and Silicon Valley about when they’re getting here, you’re as deluded as their investors.

The question isn’t when, it’s how and where.

In the third leg of my trip around the world to investigate the future of transportation, we begin an attempt to set a Cannonball Run record across India. The car? A 2017 Renault Kwid, which isn’t quite the world’s cheapest car, but at $4,000 is definitely the world’s cheapest good car. The route? Nearly 1,000 miles from Chennai to Mumbai, from India’s worst roads to its best.

Why?

To glean what lessons we can about self-driving cars from what will soon be the third largest car market in the world.

Indian driving is crazy, duh

You don’t need to go there to know that driving in India is crazy. Actually, you do. My old friend Jason Torchinsky wrote a wonderful story about his visit I thought would prepare me for my journey.

I was wrong.

When people in Los Angeles, or New York, or London, or Atlanta, or any major city in the western world complain about traffic, they are joking. Unless they were on I-95 trying to escape Hurricane Irma, they know nothing. They’ve never seen traffic.

I would have taken better pictures if my life hadn’t been in danger from the moment we pulled out of the hotel in Chennai. Also in danger? The jobs of the courageous and highly optimistic Renault-Nissan executives who greenlit our journey, which included airfare and the Kwid press car. What were they hoping to accomplish? It certainly wasn’t a driving record, for within minutes of departure we encountered a mass of un-helmeted people on bikes and mopeds in the middle of traffic, ignoring lane discipline, helmet laws and common sense. And yes, that’s a toddler on the front of that motorcycle.

Anand Gowpa

Speaking of helmet laws, here’s fun headline from 2012:

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Digest that, and then let’s move on.

What’s this? Indian lane splitting, practiced by cars and bikes simultaneously, at all speeds. If there are lane lines at all.

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How about highway driving? No problem.

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Things get even more fun at night, when no one wears reflective clothing and most two wheelers lack proper lighting. Pedestrians? Animals? That cow-catchers aren’t standard from the factory is incredible.

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Actually, highway driving is a problem, especially in weather. “Weather” often means a sunny, humid day pivoting to monsoon conditions in less than fifteen seconds. Those reports of weather bringing out the best in people, as in Texas and Florida the last two weeks? Weather also brings out the worst, at least when it comes to road safety. Take a close look at the following image.

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This is a two-lane highway. And that is a mass of bicycles, motorcycles and a trike parked in the passing lane under a bridge. Why? Because the riders have dismounted to shield themselves from the rain. This isn’t unusual. This is just the best image I could pull from the GoPro mounted on our front bumper, which was lucky to survive the trip. Two others mounted there didn’t, both victims of road debris.

Before leaving the hotel in Chennai, I cracked a joke about how our seemingly lowly Renault wouldn’t be able to keep up in traffic. How wrong I was. That’s the Kwid’s speedo at 115 kph, or about 72 mph, which I’m pretty sure was above the speed limit, if there had been any signs indicating what the speed limit was. That was a rare opportunity, and about 50% faster than what most Indian commuters will ever see.

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The reality looks more like this: cows roaming freely in and near major cities, with traffic stopping at unexpected times to allow them to wander—or sit—unhindered.

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And then there was the most surreal car ad of all time. Under almost no circumstances do you want to own a Porsche 911 in India. Okay, maybe in sections of cosmopolitan Mumbai and Delhi, but it would have to be the worst ownership experience of all time. The roads range from battle-scarred hellscape to pretty good, but leaning heavily toward hellscape. You don’t want 18’s. You don’t even want 17’s. You want 14 inch wheels with the fattest, cheapest tires you can find, because they will be punctured.

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Take a closer look and you’ll notice India's former F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan standing next to that 911. Let me tell you, Karthikeyan got a bad rap. He was racing in the wrong series. There’s a reason F1 champions usually come from countries with amazing highways and twisty roads. They grow up on them. WRC champions? They come from Scandinavia. Learn to drive on icy roads, and you’ll master them. NASCAR’s long straights? Perfect for racers who grow up with big, long interstates.

Karthikeyan? He should be doing Red Bull Global Rallycross.

The Indian Culture/Law Gap

It’s not that there aren’t laws in India. There are. They just aren’t enforced with the regularity common to first world countries. The near total absence of police is surreal. The ubiquity of signs about traffic law and road safety is comic, especially the popularity of signs which appear to be police recruiting posters.

Check out this sign at one of the many tolls we encountered.

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It clearly indicates all the things one shouldn’t be doing. Based on the locals’ behavior, it would make more sense to triple its size and state "YOU WILL OBSERVE THIS BEHAVIOR—STAY CLEAR OF OTHER MOTORISTS," which might work if there weren’t so many of them.

Let’s be serious. Population density is so high that no current Automatic Emergency Braking system could possibly work in traffic, because no car equipped with it would ever move. What about Blind Spot Monitoring systems? They’d be lighting up and chiming so much, you’d have to disable them.

Here’s another fun one. There’s a reason no one’s buying that ad space, and it’s not the condition of the sign.

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In two days and 1000+ miles of driving, I didn’t observe a single driver who wouldn’t have been pulled over—if not arrested on the spot—in the United States.

(To any American readers working in law enforcement: if you have been to India, I want to talk to you. I also want to speak to your cardiologist. Seriously, DM me on Facebook.)

Is there a term for the gap between law and culture? One can’t call a place where laws are ignored lawless. If a behavioral equilibrium renders everyone a criminal, then no one is, and there’s a fundamental disconnect which law alone hasn’t solved, and never will. Enforcement can never match culture to law; it can only tug by threat and whip by penalty. Culture is made up of people, a vast ocean of choices made moment to moment, evolving over many decades.

That Indian roads are more dangerous than America’s is obvious, and beside the point. No government ever eases traffic safety laws. Indian traffic fatalities in 2013 approached 240,000, in a country of 1.3 billion. That’s 16.6 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants per year. For those numbers to go down, people have to have choices that lead to them to safety. In a country where the majority have never owned a car, where two wheelers dominate and road conditions are terrible, getting people into any car will improve overall safety.

Self-driving cars in India? Relative to their population, Indians are just getting started driving cars. Decent human-driven cars like the Renault Kwid have only just become available in recent years, which is why India will soon be the third largest car market in the world. Feeding that growth is a sea of cars whose prices are kept low by a lack of safety hardware common in the west. Airbags? Not mandatory in India. Ultrasonic sensors? The cameras, radar and Lidar necessary for self-driving? Not an option in the fastest growing segment of the market. You can’t put those on a car selling for $20,000, let alone $5,000.

Whatever the technology, every culture must pass through a series of requisite phases before change can occur. The Indian market is at least two generations away from being able to pay for self-driving cars, let alone want them, a conundrum as-yet unresolved even in those markets that can.

Zero Day And The Culture Barrier

When will self-driving cars arrive? This one’s easy. Self-driving cars have already arrived. The media is full of stories about secret facilities and fake towns throughout the US where self-driving prototypes roam free, racking up mile after mile, obeying every law and demonstrating driving skills superior to that of virtually any human.

Deploying them in the real world—which I totally support—is another thing entirely. A sea of idiots and opportunists—also known as transportation consultants, futurists and mobility experts—would have us believe self-driving cars will change the world as soon as regulations stifling them are lifted.

They are wrong.

Culture is the Achilles Heel of the self-driving car narrative, foisted on us by a mobility industry drunk with the notion that people are a problem technology can overcome. Even if you remove all regulation, magically conjure up trillions for new infrastructure, and subsidize usage—as Ponzi schemes like Uber will likely have to, if they survive long enough—self-driving cars will literally and figuratively run head-on into the culture barrier.

Let’s assume—as the “experts” do—that self-driving cars will eventually prove significantly safer than humans. I’m sure they will. But for self-driving cars to reach that point everywhere, in all conditions—the so-called Level 5 autonomy everyone dreams of—is a distant dream, and proof that the SAE Autonomy Levels make no sense. Why? Because in the absence of a technical or regulatory definition of “safety”, manufacturers—who have invested billions in self-driving—will be forced to decide what level of self-driving is safe enough to bring to market, and market it.

The mobility industry and clickbait media supporting it are almost totally invested in the concept of the Zero Day, the day when self-driving cars reach a mystical tipping point and “take over the world,” which I also refer to as the Autonomotive Singularity. The truth is that their utopian, winner-takes-all narrative is no more than a velveteen vision of good intentions guided (and blinded) by ham-fisted profit.

It is a naive vision. Not because self-driving isn’t possible; I’m certain it’s inevitable. It’s naive because it pitches self-driving to investors, governments and potential customers alike, as totally binary, targeting the broadest possible solutions, over the widest possible area, with little nuance.

Since no technology can guarantee 100% safety, mitigating the edge cases upon which self-driving and its marketing must hinge is everything. Because the nature and frequency of edge cases are almost completely determined by culture and weather, since we can’t control for weather, culture is everything. If culture is everything, there can be no global, national, or even regional timeline for self-driving cars. All culture, like politics, is local.

Self-driving cars will sail in on a sea of local continuums: the zero-culture, good weather, closed environments on one end, and markets like India’s, with its 1.3 billion human edge cases, on the other.

Think Local, Win Global

Which brings us to the United States, cradle of the self-driving car narrative, from which the most optimistic predictions and lion’s share of investments have emerged. The problem is that although there is an American culture, it is a sociopolitical amalgamation of countless subcultures. The USA is, by virtue and design, perhaps the least homogenous culture in history. Texan culture is nothing like Maine’s, or Montana’s. A national framework superseding local laws? Foolish. Who knows better than local government what culture will support? The first real self-driving accident that occurs in a community that didn’t want them—and that only allowed them because of top-down regulatory changes—will be that much more damaging.

Culture must evolve from the bottom up.

The path of least resistance is to test, market and deploy self-driving anywhere culture and law have a one-to-one relationship. This is so obvious I can’t believe it needs to be stated, and yet the majority of the billions “invested” in self-driving are actually being set on fire in massive public relations exercises.

Where are the near term opportunities?

In small steps into markets barely removed from test facilities, while the simulation companies do the grunt work of modeling an infinite world of edge cases, one server at a time. Anyone deploying in gated communities, college campuses or small city centers in warm climates will reap vast dividends over time. Anyone trying to deploy in mixed, uncontrolled environments like Manhattan — let alone anywhere in India, as some are discussing — will squander whatever cash and brand equity they started out with.

Culture is everything. Fortunes have been lost betting against human nature, and they are made by setting and meeting realistic goals. Fleets of shared, autonomous taxis in Manhattan, Los Angeles or London? Great if you’re selling PR between 2017 and 2025, when they’ve been promised by CEOs who will have retired by then. Lousy if you buy a home sans garage because you believe corporate promises.

There’s a sea of startups focused on small steps. As David the android said in Prometheus, ‘big things have small beginnings.’ I’m certain he’s right, and a lot of investors aren’t going to like it.

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So what happened on our Indian Cannonball Run Record attempt in the Kwid? As you can imagine, it didn’t quite go as planned. But that’s another story, for the next chapter in this series...

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver, has set numerous endurance driving records in Europe & the USA in the internal combustion, EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.