On the face of it, Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari’s statement that India will not allow driverless cars sounds Luddite. Technology can ultimately not be stopped from entering any sector if it can deliver productivity and other gains. But, in a sense, he is not wrong to reassure people on jobs even they are not under obvious threat from technology.
In any case, that is not quite what Gadkari said. His full statement, as attributed to him by The Economic Times, is this: “Today, you see millions of jobs are being created in the transport market by truckers and taxi aggregators. Such technology (driverless cars) will make millions jobless. Maybe some years down the line we won’t be able to ignore it but, as of now… we shouldn’t allow it.”
The true import of Gadkari’s statement is effectively this: why spoil the party now when app-based taxis are providing jobs to millions and the technology is so far down the horizon? We can cross the bridge when the case for driverless cars is so compelling that we can’t ignore it.
This is sensible. Driverless cars are nowhere near commercial use even in America; they may be a decade away, and even so some cities may not allow them. Their first area of impact may well be in long-distance trucking, but even here introduction in some time away.
The technology itself may be just two or three years from deployment, but widespread use will need several other things to fall into place: regulatory hurdles have to be swept away, insurance and liability issues sorted out, the cash to replace large fleets with the new driverless vehicles found, etc. And there will still be small, niggling issues left to solve like setting up monitoring centres for such trucks, providing parking yards outside cities, automating refuelling, et al.
Driverless cars will be even tougher to legalise and regulate, for they will ply mostly in cities and not highways, where public safety is less of a concern.
When it comes to India, the regulatory and safety issues will not be sorted out for at least a decade-and-a-half after the technology is validated and put to use in the West, for our roads are simply too crowded to navigate even with humans at the wheel. With cows sauntering down national highways and children playing cricket on side streets, not to speak of motorcyclists who follow no law of the road, driverless cars will simply be unable to negotiate our urban jungles with any degree of safety in the foreseeable future.
Gadkari need not have fretted. Driverless cars will not be on India’s roads even long after he is gone.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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