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In October 2016, an 18-wheeler truck traveled 120 miles in the US and delivered 50,000 cans of beer. Nothing remarkable in that, except that the truck drove itself while a driver on board relaxed. Such tests are happening in Europe as well. Keeping in mind the many challenges of driving in India, will driverless truck ever be a reality here in India?
The country has a severe shortage of truck drivers; not surprising, considering the grueling hours, bad roads, poor pay, unmaintained vehicles and lack of basic facilities on highways. No wonder India has a 22 percent shortage of drivers, set to rise to 50 percent by 2022.
There is also the safety aspect to be considered. Trucks were involved in about 11 percent of all road accidents (501,423) in 2015 in India. Will autonomous trucks make for better safety?
This is a moot point, but all the same, Indian companies are readying for such a scenario, with start-up CRON Systems gearing up to deliver the country’s first prototype driverless truck to the Indian Army by early 2018. These will be invaluable in remote regions with bad roads, regular landslides and poor visibility; and what is of interest to the Army are the on-board navigation systems that can help driving in dangerous areas where roads are non-existent.
According to this report, Tata Motors is working on autonomous buses that could hit Indian roads as early as 2020. The same report says that the Mahindra Group has also started on driverless technology, but the company’s chairman Anand Mahindra says that the technology is likely to be seen in tractors first.
On the subject of driverless vehicles - is it time for self-aware trains? Trains across Europe are becoming self-aware; 250 freight trains across Europe are being fitted with sensors to capture and transmit data about their condition.
The Indian Railways is also modernizing in this direction. Over the last few years, it has been incorporating technology into its systems, processes and offerings. To start with, the country is likely to see driverless trains in the Delhi Metro route by the end of this year. It may not seem like much, but it is a good beginning.
Of course, the use of technology by the Indian Railways began a while ago: from e-ticketing and online reservations, to real time updates on train schedules, the train traveler has had the convenience of technology-driven conveniences. E-catering is a reality, and the department’s prompt responses to tweets from passengers have won them high praise and good will.
The Indian Railways reportedly conducted the first roundtable with leading tech players earlier this year to finalize the “One ICT” plan, a strategic initiative to create a tech-enabled, data-driven railway system. Data generated by the Indian Railways is significant, with 18,000 trains carrying 23 million passengers across a 64,500 km wide network every day. With an efficient open source platform to collect and analyze the information, the Railways can reduce inefficiencies and improve services.The Railways are in talks with ISRO for state-of-the-art GIS mapping of the entire rail network across the country including buildings, land, workshops to improve safety standards, and improve efficiency.They are also piloting putting in RFID tags on coaches and wagons to improve efficiency by tracking their movement and location.
While using technology and automation for the coaches and engines is one thing, there is another aspect that also needs a big technology boost – the tracks. According to this website, 47% of train accidents that took place from 2009 – 2015 were due to derailments. It’s difficult to find statistics about the average age of tracks in India, but even if they are relatively new, sensors and technology to alert drivers and stations of cracks, broken rails, objects on the tracks, etc, can save hundreds of lives.
From RFID tags to super brain trains, investment in technology is forming the basis of India’s railway transformation. The Railways has played a crucial role in the nation’s economic and social development, and integrating technology in the railway system will usher in efficiency, safety and comfort. But driverless trains? That will take some time to become a reality.