June 8, 2023
India’s first-ever autonomous vehicle (AV) has been revealed.
The zPod has been developed by Minus Zero, a start-up founded in 2021 focused on artificial intelligence that is based in the city of Bengaluru in the southern state of Karnataka.
And the fully autonomous electric vehicle – a compact, angular machine with open sides – was unveiled in a ceremony livestreamed by Minus Zero on YouTube.
The zPod, which doesn’t have a steering wheel, is claimed to be able to deliver Level 5 autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. This is considered to be when the AV has complete control of driving in all conditions.
Minus Zero has opted to use an array of high-resolution cameras to deliver this functionality, eschewing some of the more expensive technologies available – such as lidar and high-definition mapping – to keep its solutions relatively affordable. The cameras capture real-time images of the zPod’s immediate environment and transmit them to the AI system, which processes the data to control the speed and the direction.
According to Minus Zero, this gives the “most human-like drive on the planet.”
Two proprietary technologies – Nature Inspired AI and True Vision Autonomy (TVA) – are said to be key to this. These are claimed they can deliver autonomous functions inspired by physics-informed vision and the ability of the human brain to make decisions. Benefits include low-power processing, the ability to react to unexpected scenarios and also potential application in different environments and use cases, because the tech is vehicle agnostic.
According to Minus Zero: “There is no need to learn and relearn [in different locations], breaking the loop of infinite data.” It added that the tech had been specifically developed to take into account the unique road conditions in India – one of the most challenging countries to drive in the world.
The design itself is also innovative, with the zPod offering bi-directional capability, eliminating the need for U-turns. Inside, because there is no need for a driver, the occupants sit on seats that face each other.
However, the zPod’s future is far from certain. As Minus Zero’s core work is in the field of AI, it envisages scenarios whereby its technologies are applied by automakers to deliver autonomous capabilities in their own vehicles. Indeed, it said that some elements of TVA could be adopted into cars that are already on the road to offer driver assistance features. As such, the prototype is intended to showcase its potential in this regard.
But Minus Zero did admit that the zPod, or a similar shuttle, could be put to use providing mobility solutions in defined areas such as university campuses.
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