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India is the best place to experiment with driverless car

Kumar Ranjan started out as a Mechanical Engineer who took on the challenge of improving the Mobility Industry in the country. Kumar was one of the very few people who started the ‘Autonomous Vehicle Revolution’ in 2014 during Mahindra & Mahindra Spark the Rise event under Project MANAS. Kumar believes that automotive industry is at an inflection point and telematics is its pivot. He stresses that by pushing the connected vehicles in the market and getting the drivers to understand the importance of these technologies a major shift can be driven.

Earlier, Kumar led a team to roll out a driverless car on Indian roads. In a chat with Team Fayz, Kumar talks about the challenges in the sector and the future ahead.

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Life Events

  • National Children Science Congress 2006 (Awarded as Child Scientist of UP)
  • KONES 2013 (Paper Publication)
    a) Improving Crashworthiness by Damping Vibrations in CFRP Composite Structures Using Carbon Nanotubes Springs Click here to read more
  • Altair Hyperworks Grand Challenge Rank 40 2013 Click here to read more
  • Founder of Project MANAS 2014 Click here to read more
  • Speaker at Manipal Conclave 2014
  • First Job at Ingersoll Rand 2015-2016
  • Speaker at ONGC Uran 2015
  • Founder of Raamukaaka 2016 Click here to read more
  • Speaker at NASSCOM 2017
  • Founder of LEADS Click here to read more
  • Speaker at IIM L 2017
  • IEEE 2017 (Paper Publication)
    a)The lattice: An intelligent grid for connected car industry Click here to read more
  • Vice President at DrivebuddyAI 2019
  • Rex Karamveer Fellowship Nomination 2019


From a college student who planned to launch a driverless car to VP - Telematics & Strategy at DrivebuddyAI, it must have been an incredible journey. When you look back, how exciting has the journey been?

Currently, I am heading the extension of my work from Project MANAS (Driverless Car) to DrivebuddyAI where we are building AI for driver safety. I have always been fascinated by the concept of evolution. The greatest inventions and the discoveries are the eventuality of this higher natural phenomenon. Today with advance life sciences we are on the verge of creating a new life form, which on a critical note makes us believe that we can be the gods tomorrow.

As a young child, the "wheel” was my constant companion. The modern age transportation has so much to thank to the invention and evolution of the wheel. This led me to ask the obvious question, “What’s next?” The answer was right in front of me when Mahindra launched a One Million Dollar challenge in March 2014 for anyone who could not only build a driverless car but also could make it happen in India. That is when project MANAS was born(MANAS) In the Hindu scriptures, MANAS has been referred to as the higher form of Intelligence. I want to see MANAS- an intelligent being- that will supersede the limitations of a human being.

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Idea and People are the two fundamental building blocks for a change. I faced the hardest days building a sound team and getting people who could mirror my thoughts and execute them into productive actions. My team was small, but the ambitions to achieve the goal were bold and strong. From a single person, MANAS today has 50+ passionate and hardworking people all with one common goal of bringing about a change

The aim was not just to get a driverless car into existence but to integrate it with the society; to make people believe that this technology will change the lives of millions and will improve the scope of commutation in India. Persuasion started on home ground by convincing Manipal University to provide us with a seed fund. Manipal University gave me a platform to work on something which I feel will revolutionize the face of the automobile industry.

MANAS Team’s tireless efforts led to my university supporting us commercially in a bigger way. The parallel idea of exploring the vast options of Artificial Intelligence, once conveyed to the university, found their support with the commitment of a dedicated lab of AI in the near future.

Change is always difficult, but the future however belongs to those who prepare for it today.

chaayam_poster

Can you tell us where did this all begin? (The trigger to think out of the box, we mean?

“Not all beginnings are planned”, so went my life. In my 3rd year of graduate program, when every student was preparing for placements or GRE or GMAT, I was trying to find reason for everything I was doing. My plan like all others was simple, crack a good placement from college, work for a couple of years, go for MBA and then settle in the US in a big corporation. But life, as you know, had different plans for me. Sometimes the simplest things don’t come easy or they are just not meant for you.

It was 28th February 2014, National Science Day. I have always considered myself as a disciple of science, it’s the only constant which defines the universe around us. So there I was logged on my Facebook wall trying to find my purpose- ironical right? – but while scrolling I came across an ad by Mahindra which said, “Do you have it in you to Rise?” I got inquisitive to explore it further and found a speech by Anand Mahindra himself where he challenged any Indian to Rise up to the challenge and create a difference. Then followed a video of Chetan Maini who is like the father of Indian EV industry. He spoke about the changing DNA of the Indian Automotive Industry and why India needs to work on the solution such as an Autonomous Car.

After watching these videos, I don’t know what hit me that day, the very next day I was in my director’s cabin building castles in the air and talking about MIT Manipal building an Autonomous Car for India. Dr. Vinod Thomas, our director was a very patient man. He neither ignored my passion and enthusiasm, nor he gave me any approvals. He kept asking me to build plans and show the line of execution if at all we had to do this. And every single time he used to tell me that we were a private university and it was not in the league of technical institutes like IIT(s) and NIT(s). Such innovations mostly come from these institutes because they have people with high technical calibre and pedigree. And for some reason even after agreeing to his point, I kept building the plans to execute the project. The most crucial point in all this was that I was a 3rd year mechanical engineering student who had no idea about how AI in Automotive worked, how the sensors could be integrated with the vehicle and literally no idea about how an autonomous car worked! All I knew at that moment was that I had to do this and if I don’t do it, probably no one else would.

This went on for almost a month till the last day of my patience when I had lost all the hopes. I suddenly felt that I wasted a month behind something which could have changed or affected the lives of millions. I entered again into the Director's cabin and I could see a bunch of senior professors from major departments like Computer Science and Electronics & communication sitting in the room. Dr. Vinod Thomas addressed all the professors and said, “This is Kumar Ranjan and he wants to build an Autonomous Car from MIT Manipal for India”. That moment was something else, Euphoric you may say! Then he asked me to explain the whole plan of action to them and formed a board which would internally review and support wherever they could. He also proposed that MIT would fund the initial development as well.

And that’s how Project MANAS was born. I called it MANAS as I got inspired from the literature “Ramcharitmanas” Manas, meaning intelligence which comes from the beyond.
(link to the Rise prise ad)
(link to Maini’s speech)

chaayam_poster

The exposure as a BE student at Manipal must have opened up a new world before you. So at what stage did you think of launching a driverless car?

Manipal has been a magical experience for me. It changed me, shaped my personality and made me into who I am today. Like I said starting Project MANAS was never a planned enterprise. When I joined MIT in 2011, I got selected by Formula Manipal and worked there for a year learning about building Formula Type cars. That led me to write my first paper on carbon fibres which got published in Poland. And so, the sequence of events led me to believe that I’m not meant for the mundane. When I got this feeling, the opportunity presented itself in front of me and I just took a leap of faith! I feel there is still time and energy left in me that I will launch the Autonomous Car one day.

What happened to the Driverless Car project? Also, what’s happening to Project Manas and the whole concept behind it?

The Driverless Car is what became Project MANAS. Interestingly Project MANAS started out to just build an Autonomous Car for the Mahindra Challenge, but in its course of existence it became something more beautiful which I had never imagined.

You see, today we are going through a time of great depression when the industries are not doing so well and the jobs are being lost and there are not many avenues for people to find employment. When I started my entrepreneurial journey I realised that India needs the eco-system to nurture talent and skill which will either then lead to new startups which will create more jobs or will become valuable to companies who are looking for best talent and those right skill sets. The reason that why there are not enough jobs in the market is not only about poor industry performance, it’s also to do with that fact that most of the grad students or people in the employable category are not skilled enough to get employed.

Project MANAS became one of the leading projects in the country to be working on Autonomous technology and that too from a private university made by undergrad students when other projects were being done by industry veterans with the highest technical pedigree. We got sponsored by almost every big technology company in the world. The interesting thing I noticed when I was in the market with the same company CXO(s), I realized that they have been watching us all this time and they hired the best of the lot from Manipal which was not happening before. Those Big Tech Companies started hiring from Manipal because they saw the value which Project MANAS created with it’s students. Its 2019 and 7th batch is graduating from Project MANAS and I can’t be prouder of them for making it into such a wonderful endeavour. I have been away from Manipal for quite some time now but whenever I am in a group of industry veterans who are working in this industry, project MANAS is always talked about and I get to know that my juniors are working in their teams. The feeling is of like a proud father and nothing less.

Project MANAS is officially now under Manipal now and being taken care by faculty and students autonomously. If I succeed in doing what I am doing right now, I’ll make sure that Project MANAS will launch India’s first Autonomous Car. The whole world will notice this time. It’s kinda sad that when I was doing all this media never talked about it. Way back in 2014 no one cared about Autonomous Cars, but by 2016 Autonomous Car became the buzz word and almost every major company in the world was working on it. By the time it was too late for me to leverage my work, as there was no ecosystem to support such innovation. What was missing was a “Business Model” as told to me by many Venture Capitalists in the country at that time. Now I realize that how calling Innovation in India is hypocritical because India runs on capitalism where people want to make money, but no one cares about real-world problem-solving innovations. Only those innovations get funded which can make money. Imagine if ISRO chief would have gone to Indian Government for funding and they would have gotten a reply saying, “what’s the business model”, do you really think we would have been able to send the rover on the dark side of the moon and achieve what we achieved today. It’s not always about business models, its about doing the right thing for your nation and for your society. I guess that’s the difference between India and US and the reason why they say US is a meritocratic society, because your value is on your merits and not your pedigree (coming from degrees). I guess that’s one change I would love to see before I die.

chaayam_poster

In a chaotic (traffic at least) country like India, is it possible to launch a driverless car?

Definitely Not! But India is the best battle ground to create the best driverless car and that’s why every major driverless car company is using Indian traffic scenario and conditions to train their Artificial Intelligence. However driverless technology will become very useful in places like warehouses and IT parks, theme parks where the traffic is controlled and monitored.

chaayam_poster

Since you are an expert in next-generation cars, what’s your take on the feasibility of stopping diesel and petrol cars? Maruti has already said it might remove diesel cars in India. Is it possible?

Well desperate times call for desperate measures. Right now pushing electric cars in the market has become a mandate because a lot of things are riding on the current government to bring about certain changes, but it’s always the approach that matters the most. I have met all the major lobby in the country including DST and I always feel that they are lacking in their approach.

I always tell this that Indian Automotive Industry has been ruined by its own companies. But that’s a totally different story on how Indian automotive giants ruined the sustainability of the sector by their poor capitalistic approach.

chaayam_poster

Yes, removing something totally out of the market is not the most feasible thing to do but for a country like India change is something which can take place over a decade or even more. Since Independence we have been a developing country meanwhile China which is as old as us has surpassed us in so may ways. So now is the time that things have to be pushed with highest priority keeping in mind the long- term plans, yet the sustainability of this approach is not something I concur.

As far as electric cars are concerned how feasible is the idea? Yes, it does work in cities, but what about rural areas and long-distant drives?

Absolutely, EV(s) are still at the stage of inception, not because of the concept but because of the limitations we have today with certain technologies like batteries. Bringing down the cost of the battery is right now one of the major challenges for the industry to increase the adoption. Second major concern is the disposal of these batteries after their life cycle because there are very harmful to the environment. Also it would be wrong to say that these EV are fully environment-friendly because the electricity on which they run is still being produced by coal-powered power plants. Until the source of the electricity is not emission free there will always be a carbon footprint attached with EV.

When it comes to rural areas or long-distance drives, it’s more about the infrastructure of the country. Like US and China have extensively put charging stations across the country to enable EV owners to charge their vehicle in case they drain their batteries fast.

For students who want to take up careers in automobile innovation sector, what’s your advice? Also are our courses in sync with the emerging technological innovations across the world?

Well to be honest, India is not the place for any such innovation in automobile sector unless you work with a big Automotive Corporation. Secondly, the curriculum is not in sync with the emerging technologies in automotive hence it’s a calculated risk. If someone has to build a career in automotive today, he/she will have to diligently look at where the industry is progressing and then decide whether to do it or not. Like today many people tell me that I should have gone with computer science or electronics instead of mechanical. But I look at it with different perspective. Mechanical engineering is all about the creativity and it’s real, not virtual. I believe myself to be a creator and being a mechanical engineer is the best thing that ever happened to me after Manipal ofcourse.

chaayam_poster

National Children Science Congress in 2006. What grade were you in then? How did you get to participate in the Congress? What was the motivation and the post event change in you as an individual?

I was in my class 9th when National Children Science Congress happened. It was an initiative by DST for school going students to foster innovation in the field of biodiversity. The Project was called Biodiversity: Nurture Nature for a Better Future. We were a team of 5 guys. I was the team leader and I got to represent UP as a child scientist. I guess that was the beginning of my endeavours. That is where my learning curve expanded and I realized how it feels to make a difference. I was never too ambitious about anything in life. I always had this thing that if I do something I need to have a purpose for that. If I don’t have a purpose then I rather not do it at all. I think this project gave me some clarity on my purpose.

We see a series of public speaking experiences in front of very different kinds of audience. What was the motivation behind that first major public speaking endeavour? How important do you think is public speaking as a skill for today's youth?

Like I said before I didn’t plan this as an activity which I’d continue doing. In my journey at certain places I got invited to speak on my work or my journey and I guess I said some right things which got others to invite me again. For me, public speaking is very essential, but I don’t do it to become an influencer. I do it to say the right thing and things that are practical and not bookish or theoretical. People who come to me for help I always give them my own practical experience than quoting someone from book or give them motivational talks. Life is not always what a lot of motivational speakers tell, its complex, its different for everyone. You can solve everyone’s problem with same approach. So for me public speaking is about solving problems and touching peoples lives. I think public speaking came to me naturally.

chaayam_poster

What do you think should be the motivating factor to startup - the passion for what you are into or the financial benefits of such a venture? Example, what was your motivation behind starting up Raamukaaka?

For me it has always been about change. If I can do something which can bring about a change for good I’ll take my chances. The reason I started Raamukaaka was to solve the problem of home cooked food and untrained cooks who prepare food. We created a model where you can get a well-trained chef at your home and get him/her to cook anything you wish to eat, without the conventional hassle you would face with regular cooks at home. We ran pretty well till the time my co-founder and I split. We were operationally breakeven.

The motivation was to have a side hustle so that I can maintain some liquidity as my Autonomous Car thing was not picking up traction in terms of funding. Strange how sometimes you got to do things to make sure that you can afford shelter and a min of 2 meals a day. Raamukaaka was my bread and butter so that I could focus on bigger things, but fate had different plans. Yet what I am happy about is that all my customers are still in touch with me and they all feel that Raamukaaka added a lot of value to their lives.

chaayam_poster

We see that you are very closely involved in the star- up network via Leads and other similar initiatives. How has that experience been and how would you rate our startup ecosystem? If there is one thing that needs correction on top priority basis what would that be?

Starting out LEADS in Lucknow was for the objective of creating the missing ecosystem in the city which can nurture some great startups. Our startup ecosystem is definitely evolving and honestly it’s the best time to be in this kind of thriving eco-system. It’s the best time to explore opportunities and capitalize them, however real-world problem-solving innovation is still far from becoming sustainable.

Media plays a very important role in driving the sentiment of the people. Startup bubble has created many illusions which make every entrepreneur feel that he can make a million-dollar startup. Expectation vs reality is very important for everyone to understand in this eco-system. Unfortunately, media only talks about the success stories which seeds false expectations in the young entrepreneur’s head.

India Needs more believers, people who can be there in your failure than only in your success. We need people who can take up challenging tasks of solving real-world problem. And this will start fundamentally from the education of the students. It has to be encoded in our DNA that we are moving towards more complex times and our conventional approach can’t solve the modern problems. Our education system needs to incorporate the fact that students need to know the truth about what they are getting into. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur and not everyone has the conviction to make their dreams a reality. Even if it sounds demotivating, it’s the truth. It will lead to lesser stress and anxiety if people accept the truth.

chaayam_poster

What are the habits that have helped you reach where you are now?

  • Perseverance (I just cannot give up on anything I have dreamt of)
  • Modesty (I have always been modest with everyone whom I have ever interacted, this has helped me maintain a Goodwill amongst the people)
  • Forgiveness (a lot of people made mistakes for which I had to pay the price but I accepted it as my mistake of not being able to identify such people in the first hand)
  • Acceptance (biggest thing I have learnt so far, accept the people around you as they are and the situations as they are, it helped me remain at peace)
  • Saying that Yes I can do it! Self Belief. It took me some time to realize it but this one thing was the most important. Believing that you can do it made a lot of difference.
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