Like it or not, autonomous mobility is inevitable. That’s according to Pranav Manpuria, the founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based Flux Auto.
Flux Auto is one of the few companies in the autonomous space in India. Started in 2017 by two friends Manpuria and Abhishek Gupta, Flux Auto is a start-up committed to making autonomous technology available to commercial vehicles (CVs) in the Indian market.
“I knew I always wanted to be in this space, but the only thing that pushed me over the edge was when we had a clear use-case and market for what we were building. We didn’t want to build self-driving technology just for the sake of building it. We wanted to build a company that could make money and serve customers; not a research project or hobby, but a viable business,” says Manpuria
“I had been reading up for a couple of weeks on the autonomous vehicle space. It was super nascent back then. This was less from a perspective of ‘Is this something that we can get into?’, but more from a perspective of ‘I just want to understand more about this space.’ It is then that it hit us that commercial vehicles is a whole vacuum that has not been filled and no one was really trying to do anything about it. That’s when we started this. That’s what gave us the conviction that this can actually be done”
Manpuria, Gupta along with Flux Auto’s VP of Tech, Shilpaj Bhalerao, are the main driving forces behind Flux Auto, bringing to life the company’s vision of powering Indian trucks with autonomous technology.
“Our approach is slightly different,” says Manpuria. “We’re vehicle and brand agnostic. We can go to any vehicle or any brand. Ours is a modular kit that can be fitted into any existing vehicle – a brand new vehicle rolling off a production line today or an 18-year old vehicle, which has run over 250,000 kilometres already. We’re not really dependent on any OEM for our market roll-out, and we can also target the hundreds of millions of vehicles that are already plying on the road.”
Modularity isn’t the only feature that Flux Auto has on offer. In a cost-conscious market like India, one of their biggest differentiating factors is that the technology that they bring to the table is LIDAR-less.
“Our focus from day one is that we will build this company only if we can actually commercialise it. That forced us to think in a different direction. Shilpaj, our VP of Tech, has been working on cameras for a very long time. It’s because of him that we stumbled upon the camera angle. Turns out, Tesla has been doing the very same thing; they don’t use LIDAR either. Shilpaj along with the example of Tesla gave us the confidence that this is something that we were willing to risk the future of our company on.”
“If you think about it, us humans don’t have LIDARs on our body. We’re able to drive perfectly fine without LIDARs. So why would a vehicle that can think, learn and understand like a human need a LIDAR? That’s the simplest way to look at it. Obviously, redundancies are needed to be built in, because this such a nascent technology. But the way we look at it, this is a viable approach. We’ve worked it out a lot, had a lot of late nights and early mornings thinking about this.”
He adds: “Globally, everyone agrees that India’s one of the hardest markets to deploy autonomous vehicles into. We’re doing it on 18-year old vehicles on an Indian highway, which has innumerable obstacles such as oncoming traffic to stray cows. We have been able to show people that not only are we not using LIDARs, but we are also doing this in India, which is one of the hardest places to implement this, with a lot of old vehicles around that no one’s really been trying to target. I think that’s our differentiator.”
Flux Auto has now become a much sought-after company, where they are constantly in talks with OEMs and other companies to explore viable partnership opportunities. That said, Manpuria believes that the company has to be extra careful when it comes to partnerships, especially since a lot of OEMs demand exclusivity.
“The OEM approach is a bit different because they have control over manufacturing. They don’t have to build one entire part of their technology. Controlling a vehicle is very simple if you’re an OEM, because you know exactly how to control your vehicles. Which is why, if you look at our competitors like TuSimple or Embark Trucks, they have both tied up with OEMs and are working only for those OEMs. We, on the other hand, have been really careful of who we partner with, because everyone wants exclusivity. There’s no point about being flexible to work with any brand or any vehicle if we are constrained with exclusivity.”
Back This Space
Building the autonomous technology itself is just one part of a much larger puzzle that companies such as Flux Auto are trying to solve. The two other parts are infrastructure and government legislation.
When it comes to India, Manpuria is skeptical about the Indian government bringing in any infrastructural changes in the short term, but, like many others, is eagerly waiting for some sort of legislature to back this space.
“In India, autonomous technology is not a big enough issue from the point of the government today, because they don’t think that’s something that is needed. Even in places like the US, there are only a few states that are actually building in the infrastructure to support this technology. Eventually when they see more deployments of autonomous vehicle technology globally, that’s when they’ll see the benefits of investing time and resources into making changes for it.”
“Autonomous vehicles are inevitable. But I think we’ll see the implementation eventually when new cities come up. They will be designed entirely differently to accommodate autonomous vehicles. But I don’t think in the near future India is going to have any sort of infrastructural changes at all to accommodate autonomous vehicles. What can hope for is regulatory changes or at least some semblance of structure and concreteness there.”
The company has raised funds via a seed round. Manpuria says the focus is now on ‘smart money’ where they can bring on board people who can help Flux Auto navigate its course to success.