Participants at the workshop enacting scenarios

India: A laboratory for autonomous driving

Last two days I was at the 10th Pune Design Festival, a gathering of 500 designers, design teachers and students from India. The conference has established a reputation for showcasing the state of art in design in India, especially focusing on wide variety of domains, from for profit to not for profit sectors.

Building a collage of the barriers and aspirations

Besides delivering the opening keynote speaker I was also invited to conduct a workshop with 80 participants on the topic of Future of Autonomous Driving in India. Though the time available for the workshop (90 minutes) was too short for a rigorous exploration of the participant’s imagination, I did walk away with a few insights that could be pursued during a more rigorous investigation.

Just as a smartphone is not a luxury but a lifeline for many Indians who have leapfrogged computers and embraced smart phones as their primary platform for connectivity, I feel confident after this workshop to predict that autonomous driving will be embraced by India for reasons other that the reasons that will drive its adoption in the US or Europe. This workshop has forced me to reconsider my own preconceptions for the potential value of autonomous driving to people in India.

The bottom line is- today there are too many variables in the driving experience of Indian drivers that are out of their control, compared to the drivers in the US. There are distractions within the vehicle and outside that make driving unsafe and give people a sense of being out of control. Even those drivers who want to follow traffic rules in a chaotic environment, find it challenging to keep up with the distractions both at cognitive and emotional levels. They have low trust in other drivers, and they don’t have confidence in themselves.

Women who participated in the workshop particularly complained of cognitive overload and frustration due to multiple demands on their attention (especially when driving children around). Stray animals on the street, processions, and, even policemen were called out as distractions to safe driving.

In India, people have higher level of trust in technologies to resolve problems caused by human error or inefficiencies, and corruption in public systems. People are less concerned about being tracked or their behaviors and preferences recorded, unlike people in the US. In fact they see it as a convenience.

Even middle class Indians spend money on services of different kinds. Be it domestic help, a chauffeur driven car, or courteous service at a restaurant or a hotel, Indians love receiving caring service. The higher the quality of service, the more of a premium they are willing to pay. In this context, a vehicle that takes away their anxiety and services their needs on the road is a luxury. I expect the adoption of autonomous driving in India to be faster than in the western world if it is fail proof.

Autonomous driving features will bring a greater sense of safety and predictability if implemented with sensitivity to the local culture. The value proposition, scenarios of use, and trust factors will need to be articulated with a language that resonates with Indian mindset.

Deeper research is necessary to deconstruct this unique opportunity.