India could see driverless cars on its roads sooner than most people might expect, as proposed amendments to the motor vehicles law will empower the government to permit the testing of such vehicles - an area in which companies such as Google, Tesla and Uber are heavily engaged.
"The government will allow testing of these vehicles on a case-by-case basis once the law is in place," a top roads ministry official told The Economic Times.
The move will allow Indian carmakers and technology firms to join the global race to develop self-driving cars. Tata Elxsi, the Tata Group's design and technology firm, has been planning to test driverless cars. The company declined to comment for this report.
The new provision is part of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which had grabbed headlines for its focus on safety and hefty penalties for traffic violations.
"In order to promote innovation and research and development in the fields of vehicular engineering, mechanically propelled vehicles and transportation in general, the central government may exempt certain types of mechanically propelled vehicles from the application of the provisions of this Act," reads a clause in the amendment.
The Bill, introduced in Parliament in August last year, has since been referred to a parliamentary standing committee.
"Once cleared, any innovation in the transport sector such as semiautonomous and fully autonomous vehicles, both passenger and commercial, could be tested in India," said the official cited above.
Such tests will require the permission of the transport department of the union roads ministry, the person said.
Globally, carmakers and technology companies including Tesla Motors, China's Baidu, Google, Uber, Mercedes, Ford and General Motors are working on driverless cars, which are already being tested on city roads across the world.
Incidentally, Google has accused Uber of stealing technology used in the vehicles. (See: Google's-parent Alphabet sues Uber for 'stealing' autonomous car tech). Tesla Motors chief executive Elon Musk has pledged he will produce a vehicle that will drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by the end of 2017.
Swedish automaker Volvo has formed a partnership with Uber to test driverless XC90s for ride-sharing purposes. Uber tested its first fleet of driverless Volvo XC90s fitted with Uber software in Pittsburg last September.
The taxi aggregator subsequently had plans to run a pilot in California but the department of motor vehicles there revoked the registration of Uber's 16 autonomous vehicles because the company allegedly refused to apply for appropriate permits (See: Uber ships driver-less fleet to Arizona after Californian regulator revokes registration). Apart from its tie-up with Uber, Volvo is separately gearing up to launch its Drive Me programme, which will involve the testing of 100 driverless cars in Gothenburg by the end of 2017.
The company has plans to make autonomous vehicles commercially available by 2020-21.