Dr. Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known and vice versa. Transportation is the same way. The more we study the current state of transportation the less precisely we understand its momentum.
This is especially true in India where the array of transportation options is unfamiliar to a “Western” visitor making it difficult to discern its momentum. And the unfamiliar, and in some cases archaic or outmoded, exists in India in close proximity to both the familiar and to emerging future forms of transportation.
Like the rest of the world, India is struggling with increasing problems associated with motorized transportation including congestion, pollution and highway fatalities. India is unique in leading the world in highway fatalities and in the growth of four-wheel vehicle production – 9% CAGR anticipated through 2022.
Also like the rest of the world, India and Indian people are sizing up their transportation options which might take some surprising turns. While the rest of the world is obsessed with autonomous vehicles, India is focusing on electrification – including the electrification of its two- and three-wheeled vehicles and buses.
In fact, India’s devotion to two- and three-wheeled transportation is already opening minds and doors to new transportation solutions including ride hailing and sharing solutions built around these smaller vehicles. And, at least according to the billboard I saw in Pune (above), maybe a turn away from vehicle-centric transportation altogether.
On the ground in India a visitor is overwhelmed by the widespread reliance on two-wheel and three-wheel vehicles – not unusual in Southern Asia nor for an emerging market. What the predominance of these apparently less sophisticated transportation solutions masks is the underlying desire in India to find a new transportation path forward capable of reducing fatalities, emissions and congestion.
That desire was captured in the billboard (pictured above – www.aceaugusta.com) advertising the Ace Augusta apartments and their vision of vehicle-less living. It appears that even in transportation-challenged India, the creators of new households can be attracted by visions of a life beyond the daily travails of transportation.
India has emerged “Survivor”-like as the only one of the four once-ballyhooed BRIC’s countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) still showing solid growth. The government of India is actively leading and investing in smart city, Internet of things and digital-everything strategies and startups along with a Make in India campaign.
The start-up, venture capital and entrepreneurial environment is intense and getting more intense as technology companies previously known primarily for outsourcing activities – TCS, KPIT, Infosys, Wipro, and others – pivot toward creating their own intellectual property. “Western” tech companies, meanwhile, continue to quietly expand their significant operations in India to take advantage of the growing pool of talent – while trying to play down these substantial strategic overseas investments (for political reasons).
In fact, multiple automotive industry suppliers have begun autonomous vehicle trials in India in the hopes of avoiding the prying eyes of regulators and competitors.
It is into this whirl of research and development and practical testing and implementation that a new incubator has emerged: Autonebula. The organization had its inaugural meeting last week and recognized three startups as part of a wider effort to identify emerging opportunities in transportation problem solving.
The challenges facing transportation startups in India are significant as the virtues of one of the largest and most sophisticated national rail systems in the world is undermined by a paucity of urban mass transit. India’s transportation of people is characterized by a combination of public and private buses and a massive population of three-wheel and two-wheel vehicles and small commercial vehicles.
During my visit to India I was reading Samuel “Dr. Gridlock” Schwartz’s “Street Smart” wherein the former New York transportation authority executive and now consultant describes his vision for “walkable” cities built around an array of low-tech traffic calming systems and technologies – from narrower streets to pedestrian plazas. India faces real challenges in reducing traffic, pollution and congestion and Schwartz definitely has some ideas that might be useful.
Schwartz notes the important role of apps in demystifying public transport and other people-moving systems including locating stops, accurate arrival times and simplified payment systems. India has more than its fair share of mobile applications for hailing rides (Ola tops Uber in India) on two- and three-wheel vehicles or finding and accessing a shared ride (Zoomcar) or bus.
Just as the U.S. saw record vehicle sales in 2015 in the midst of growing interest in ride sharing and ride hailing services, India, too, is increasingly replacing two- and three-wheeled transportation with four-wheeled transportation. But two- and three-wheelers remain important aspirational acquisitions.
The most important learning from Schwartz’s “Street Smart” is the acceptance that cities do have limitations. No matter how small or smart vehicles become, there is only so much room on highways and city streets for vehicles. Autonomous vehicles and shared rides are supposed to eliminate much of the growing excess individual transportation capacity – but not if most individuals insist on traveling individually and whenever they please.
It is time for everyone, not just disaffected millennials, to contemplate “vehicleless” living (as advertised in Pune) and to consider the implications of the choices we make – particularly the choice of where we live. Schwartz notes that walkability broadly improves with greater concentration of populations in urban areas and with improved walkability comes improved mental and physical health. He adds that greater population concentration and reduced transportation stress contributes measurably to GDP growth.
Maybe the Ace Augusta apartment developers in Pune are onto something – offering an experience capable of transcending transportation troubles and growing the economy while de-stressing its residents. That will look and sound like nirvana to a lot of people and not just people living in India.
Meanwhile, care of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, here are India’s latest vehicle production and sales outcomes for 2015:
“The industry produced a total of 23,366,246 vehicles including passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, three wheelers and two wheelers in April-March 2015 as against 21,500,165 in April-March 2014, registering a growth of 8.68% over the same period last year.”
“The sales of passenger vehicles grew by 3.90% in April-March 2015 over the same period last year. Within the passenger vehicles segment, passenger cars and utility vehicles grew by 4.99% and 5.30%, respectively, while vans declined by 10.19% in April-March 2015 over the same period last year.
“The overall commercial vehicles segment registered a decline of 2.83% in April-March 2015 as compared to same period last year. Medium & heavy commercial vehicles grew by 16.02% and light commercial vehicles declined by 11.57%.
“Three wheelers sales grew by 10.80% in April-March 2015 over the same period last year. Passenger carriers and goods carriers grew by 12.16% and 5.27% respectively in April-March 2015 over April-March 2014.
“Two wheelers sales registered growth of 8.09% in April-March 2015 over April-March 2014. Within the two wheelers segment, scooters, motorcycles and mopeds grew by 25.06%, 2.50% and 4.51% respectively in April-March 2015 over April-March 2014.
“In April-March 2015, overall automobile exports grew by 14.89% over the same period last year. Passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, three wheelers and two wheelers grew by 4.42%, 11.33%, 15.44% and 17.93 percent respectively during April-March 2015 over the same period last year.”