The lockdown has been a churning exercise that has brought out both poison and elixir out of the tech ecosystem in the country. One such example of the latter is Minus Zero—India’s first startup building self driving cars in the country with Level 5 autonomy. The startup was founded in the midst of a pandemic, in 2020, by Gagandeep Reehal and Gursimran Kalra.
Interestingly it started as an offshoot of a research paper on artificial intelligence being less dependent on data, states Reehal, who is the CEO and CTO of Minus Zero. The major issue with other autonomous driving companies is the need to increase accuracy by training the model on a lot of data. The USP of Minus Zero is flipping that narrative and making the AI less dependent on data.
“We needn’t train our model on large amount of data for that accuracy. Also, it is possible to have zero dependency on expensive sensors, like LiDARS, which also increase the cost of ownership,” says Reehal. Safety is an important factor closely followed by cost in an autonomous vehicle.
His preferred analogy to describe the scenario: You do not show a baby 10,000 images of a bird to help identify a bird in front of him/her.
Subscribing to the school of thought that uses camera in a self driving car instead of an expensive sensor suite, Reehal says that it makes the product rider centric and eliminates the need to be consistently attentive.
Indian roads: The toughest testing ground
Recently, the founders tested an autonomous three-wheeler for over 2 km in Jalandhar, Punjab, proving its capability to adapt to the Indian roads and conditions.
“Instead of relying on lane markings, we have an AI model that detects a flat surface or a drivable area instead,” explains Reehal.
The road ahead seems to filled with milestones to be achieved for the duo. The end destination is an affordable fully autonomous car by 2023. And though the recent test on the roads of Jalandhar was successful, the work has just began in terms of regulatory approvals and legalities.
Gursimran, COO, Minus Zero explains, “The first milestone is converting a third-party car into a level 4 autonomy vehicle that can run on Indian (semi urban, urban) roads by this year end. By next year, we hope to partner with some of the established players in the market and collaborating with them to actually bring out the product and working alongside them to manufacture the level 5 autonomy product and test it out on the Indian roads. By 2023, we plan to roll it out to various regulatory regulations that we have to pass through.” And once Indian government passes the relevant regulations, Minus Zero aims to then bring out the product in the market, says Gursimran.
But when quizzed about other challenges outside the scope of technology, Reehal points out that changing the mindset is the biggest hurdle. He also points out that the bigger challenge is the project of these likes being resource and capital intensive. And frontier tech like autonomous vehicle do need a lot of R&D investment.