[Techie Tuesday] The 21-year-old student-entrepreneur building an Indian self-driving vehicle
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” — Mark Twain
For 21-year-old Gagandeep Reehal, age has never been a challenge when it comes to achieving his goals. Busy making India’s self-driving vehicle dream come true, he is the co-founder of Minus Zero, a startup that aims to build affordable self-driving electric cars in India.
Earlier this year, in April, Gagandeep and his co-founder also conducted India's first self-driving test live in Jalandhar — with an electric autorickshaw.
Developed in only four months with a mere amount of Rs 50,000, this three-wheeler prototype performed several complicated driving manoeuvres that are unprecedented for Indian roads.
The vehicle, Gagandeep claims, relies on its camera suite, with zero dependencies on lane markings and expensive LiDARs, and is powered by a highly computationally efficient AI and less dependent on data.
“That is the first time any company has tested a driverless vehicle on Indian roads. The probability of people following traffic rules in India is quite low. So, everything needs to be processed in real-time. After our first test drive, we are confident that self-driving cars will become a reality soon as what can work on Indian roads can work anywhere,” he says.
Only in the second year of his bachelor’s in engineering, Gagandeep is already an AI researcher, author, technologist, and entrepreneur, involved in multiple projects related to Applied Artificial Intelligence, Product Design, and inter-disciplinary research across cognitive and human-centred AI, and autonomous vehicles and robotics.
Gagandeep is also a mentor, and has judged more than 65 developer and hacking events worldwide, spoken at leading conferences, and is a guest lecturer at several prestigious institutes like NIT Hamirpur, IITs, among others.
A life of self-learning
Gagandeep’s first step towards self-learning started in his very young days — reading books his mother would gift him.
“This also pushed me to explore new learning resources, and find my interests at quite an early stage,” he says.
Getting his first desktop and internet connection opened up a whole new world of learning for Gagandeep — with Google, YouTube, online resources, and coding. By the time he was 16, he was already experimenting with blockchain, AI, and robotics.
“I was able to narrow down my focus on two things — AI and writing, and the journey began,” adds the young entrepreneur.
Gagandeep was just 16-years-old when he published his first book. Since then, he has published three more, and his pieces have also been featured in several magazines and journals.
Driving innovations from India
Gagandeep became interested in self-driving vehicles during the first year of engineering while writing a research paper on how to reduce AI dependency on data.
At present, AI is very much dependent on data. For instance, a company building a self-driving car will have to collect around 2 million miles of driving data to make the vehicle accurate in just one city.
“Not only is data collection a costly affair but to keep it updated in real-time is a magnanimous task, particularly for a country like India where road construction never stops,” he adds.
Gagandeep decided to apply his learnings and launched Minus Zero with his friend Gursimran Kalra to develop the first prototype.
Following the top-bottom learning approach
Learning usually has a bottom-down approach where people learn something and then find a way to execute that learning.
On the other hand, Gagandeep believes in a top-down approach. According to him, if you want to work on something, start working on it with the help of resources, learning as you work.
As a techie, Gagandeep believes it is not only important to be a master of one’s domain but also have leadership skills to be able to execute one’s vision and scale it further with continuous innovation.
Also, for him, an idea doesn’t need to be big or small, a Tier-I or Tier-III product. What matters is “how you approach a certain problem”.
“Fundamentally, every problem revolves around the basics. That is how we were able to put together the self-drive prototype in just four months,” he explains.
It’s not rosy at all ends
Being a star kid is not easy. While building this enviable resumé Gagandeep also faced several challenges.
At 16, he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which led to extreme medication. This was also the time when he discovered his flair for writing. As he got engrossed in writing books and self-publishing them, Gagandeep overcame his OCD by the time he finished school.
The second-biggest blow, he says, was getting admission to Oxford University, but not receiving a scholarship.
“Spending Rs 40 lakh per year on tuition is not easy for any Indian middle-class family. So, I had to let go of that dream,” he adds.
But Gagandeep says, these helped him set smaller dreams and goals, ones that can be achieved quickly, giving a sense of progress and the confidence to go further.
Gagandeep believes that by 2023, Minus Zero will have self-drive technology ready for Indian traffic. Several patents are in progress, and he is also working on cognitive AI concepts to build an AI that can mimic somebody's emotional intelligence.
He is also working to grow ‘Fermi Centre for Applied Sciences’, a research institute that will offer internships to students and help them cultivate their ideas. This is a non-profit organisation but is at a very novice stage.
For students and young techies, Gagandeep has three pieces of advice —
- Execution matters more than ideas: “People can steal ideas, but the execution is one’s own, which creates the differentiation. Also, executing ideas at the right time is the key.”
- Always have a backup plan: “Unless one has a solid backing, they should be well-prepared to fail and switch to alternate approaches.”
- CGPA is just a number: “Being a topper is good but if there is really something that one needs to learn, they need to move out of the academic zone and look for the learning opportunities all around.”
“Get practical exposure to solving real-world problems, groom yourself for challenging roles ahead, as well as get a mindset to handle any flips flops through your professional journey when needed,” Gagandeep concludes.