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Tata Motors to introduce driver-assistance tech

Tata Motors is closely watching the autonomous-driving technologies being developed globally by the likes of Daimler, Google, Tesla and its own subsidiary, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR). The homegrown automobile major wants to bring driver-assistance functions such as collision avoidance and automated parking to its cars in India.

"There's clearly a movement globally towards more and more autonomy and eventually autonomous cars will come. It's important for us in India to understand the technologies behind that (autonomous driving) and that it will come into our market gradually," said Tim Leverton, head of advanced and product engineering.

A recent video, uploaded on YouTube, shows a Tesla Model S swerving to avoid a collision with a truck that's changing lanes, without any inputs from the driver. The video, which went viral, was lauded by automotive fans the world over.

Tata, which is looking at technology as a differentiator to claw back its lost market share, is shipping its current crop of cars with features such as free in-car navigation. The firm has partnered with MapMyIndia to power the service and says it's the first firm not just in India, but the world over to do this.

While the technology today is allowing customers to get a more smartphone-like experience in the car, in the future, it will allow cars to park themselves, improve safety in low-visibility situations and much more. These are features customers will want and Tata says it is future-ready, in terms of the technology it is developing.

"The technologies which are coming out - sensor technologies, camera technologies, radar technologies - can be deployed to improve safety on Indian roads," added Leverton.

While the cost of a LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) module, which is used in autonomous cars to build a three-dimensional map of its surroundings, is currently around $30,000, experts say it won't stay the same for long. Moreover, the camera technology which can be used to detect objects around vehicles is cheap enough to detect at large scales.

Tata has distinct advantages over other Indian car manufacturers when it comes to autonomous cars - its subsidiary JLR and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). JLR is developing its own autonomous car technologies, which could one day trickle into Tata's more affordable people carriers.

Land Rover has showcased apps that allow users to control their cars from outside, using smartphones. TCS has, over the years, built expertise across several technology verticals, including robotics.

Roshy John, head of robotics and cognitive systems at TCS, recently showed his exploits in building a self-driving Tata Nano in a YouTube video that went viral. While rudimentary, John's prototype is no more than a few years behind giants such as Daimler, BMW or Audi in terms of technology.

"TCS has some fantastic capabilities which he's been able to use, but, as I mentioned, the industrial cost of this and the practicality of it in Indian conditions is some years away," said Leverton.

The other direction cars are moving in is being powered by electric drivetrains. Here, Tata has made significant headway, not just in cars but in commercial vehicles as well. While the company had participated in a UK government-funded project to test electric cars on the roads a few years ago, electric buses are more likely to hit the roads sooner.

"We've proven that technology (electric) but the barrier is the economics. The infrastructure for charging and supporting that in India is not there yet. What's more attractive in the shorter term is hybrid and we're at advanced stages with our commercial vehicles here. We've now got our first orders for hybrid buses," said Leverton.

When it comes to electric cars, Mahindra & Mahindra has the lead among Indian manufacturers. By buying Bengaluru-based Reva, the company has already put its first electric vehicle, the e2o on roads. Tata, on the other hand, thinks hybrid will win over purely electric in the short term, thanks to the lack of infrastructure and high costs.

However, stricter emission norms are likely to promote electric vehicles gradually.

FUTURE OF MOBILITY Globally, fully autonomous cars could hit roads by 2020; to take longer to come to India
  India will see gradual roll-out of driver assistance features before full autonomy
  Collision avoidance, automated parking to be among the first features to make it on Indian cars
  Fully electric cars will be preceded by hybrid ones in India due to stricter emissions norms, lack of charging infrastructure