‘The first application of autonomous technologies in vehicles in India will happen in the taxi segment.’

Dr Pawan Goenka, managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, on developing autonomous tractors and why the taxi segment could be the first to use autonomous driving tech in India.

By Amit Panday calendar 19 Jan 2017 Views icon6362 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
‘The first application of autonomous technologies in vehicles in India will happen in the taxi segment.’

Dr Pawan Goenka, managing director, Mahindra & Mahindra, on developing autonomous tractors and why the taxi market could be the first to use autonomous driving technologies in India. He spoke to Autocar Professional’s Amit Panday on the sidelines of the ongoing SIAT Expo 2017 at the ARAI campus in Pune.

Has Mahindra & Mahindra started work on developing autonomous tractors?
We have started some early work and have done some early prototype. But early prototype to production is always a long journey. It would be premature for me to give a timeline for it right now. For India, autonomous tractors are, perhaps, a priority over autonomous vehicles. We are working with some global technology providers for the same.

How would you keep costs in check given that autonomous technology and associated features are expensive right now and the tractor market is too cost sensitive?
You have to look in terms of overall costs of operations just like electric vehicles. Buying an electric vehicle is more expensive but using it is cheaper for its lifespan of 4-5 years. But people still tend to look at the acquisition costs.

Similarly, in tractors today, one of the biggest constraints that farms have to deal with is to find (skilled and reliable) labourers. In this context, it becomes interesting to see how the farm owners can still do farming without unskilled labourers. So if you take out labour costs and put it into buying, say, an autonomous tractor, then I think there will be a payback that will surely happen.

However, currently the costs are too high for the payback to happen. If we were to launch such a tractor today at the cost that it incurs, I don’t think we will sell any without government subsidy.

When any such technology comes out, in the beginning there has to be some incentivisation that has to be done. Either the OEM does it by losing money on the technology or government does it by subsidising the technology.

But with time when the volumes will go up – just like with electric vehicles – that might not need any subsidy. In 2-3 years, the autonomous tractors will follow a similar pattern.

Autonomous does not necessarily mean driverless, it can also mean driver assist. That’s the first step. So you may still have a person sitting on the tractor but he may not be driving the tractor. Instead, he may be just operating some joystick or specific controls. This can take away the drudgery of operating the tractor. The second step would be completely autonomous.

While M&M has started developing its capabilities on the front of autonomous technologies for tractors, will the passenger car / UV segment be benefited under the synergies?
Yes, undoubtedly. That’s one of the many benefits that M&M enjoys. We are probably the only company in the world that makes both automobiles as well as tractors, and certainly the only company that has its R&D centre of both these divisions at the same place. So it is natural for us, more synergistic for us to bring the automotive technologies to tractors, with almost the same set of people working on it.

Also, besides cars, a number of global OEMs are testing autonomous technology on heavy trucks as they can travel on highways without much interruption. Does M&M see heavy trucks as another potential area for implementing autonomous technology?
The answer to this question will be my guess because currently we are far from seeing autonomous technology (in vehicles) as a reality in India. My guess is that the first application of autonomous technologies in vehicles will happen in the taxi segment in India.

The likes of Ola and Uber will find it very attractive to have autonomous vehicles, where they don’t need a driver. For them, if I believe what I hear, the biggest hurdle to growth is finding drivers. So, I think, that segment will see the first application of autonomous technologies (in India).





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