Mukesh Ambani goes back to the future with his latest investment in a pod taxi tech company

Money man.
Money man.
Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
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Mukesh Ambani has yet again displayed his seriousness towards technology but experts believe it might be too soon to call his oil-to-telecom conglomerate “tech-first.”

On Feb. 28, Ambani’s Reliance Industries (RIL) said it had bought an additional stake in skyTran, a US-based company that has developed a technology for running pod taxis, for $26.76 million (Rs196 crore). RIL had first picked up a 12.7% stake in skyTran in 2018 and bought some additional shares of the company in 2019 and 2020. With the recent deal, RIL’s stake in skyTrans stands at 54.5%. All these investments have been done through RIL’s subsidiary Reliance Strategic Business Ventures.

This interest in skyTran is in line with RIL’s increased focus on technology over the last couple of years.

In 2020, the company launched several tech-first businesses, including its WhatsApp-based grocery retail business JioMart and a Zoom-like video calling app called JioMeet. The company also roped in investors like Facebook and Google for its technology venture Jio Platforms, which dabbles in a host of new-tech segments such as cloud, media, digital commerce, financial services, gaming, education, healthcare, agriculture, e-governance, and smart cities.

But experts say it might still be too early to call RIL a tech-first business. “It’s a stretch to call RIL a tech-first firm. They are still very much a tech-wannabe firm,” said Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, director of research at Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context at Tufts University.

Meanwhile, in the press release to announce the recent skyTran stake buy, Ambani said his company was committed to “investing in building futuristic technologies that would transform the world.”

What is skyTran?

Founded in 2009, California-based skyTran has reportedly been incubated at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an independent agency of the US federal government responsible for the civilian space programme. The company has developed a magnetic levitation and propulsion technology for implementing personal transportation systems that it says can solve the problem of road traffic congestion globally.

“The proposed skyTran transportation systems would consist of computer-controlled passenger pods running on its state-of-the-art, patented Passive Magnetic Levitation technology and would use cutting edge IT, telecom, loT and advanced materials technologies to transport passengers in a fast, safe, green, and economical manner,” the RIL press release said. “It is also supported by notable global venture capital investors such as Innovation Endeavors.”

skyTran’s technology can be used in a pod taxi, which is like a driver-less cable car that runs on electricity. Typically a pod can accommodate up to six people at a time.

In 2018, a source-based report in Mint newspaper had said that RIL was close to finalising a site for India’s first pod taxi prototype. The company has not yet made any official announcements about a pod taxi plan.

In India, the concept of pod taxis initially grabbed attention in 2017 when NITI Aayog, the government think tank, cleared the centre’s proposal to test three rapid transport systems with the use of pod taxis. Experts, however, are doubtful about how successful a pod taxi can be in solving India’s road congestion problem.

It’s one thing for such a technology to work in a sparsely populated southernmost city in Israel and in a place like Dubai where there is ample land and an appetite for experimentation,” Chaturvedi said. “It is an entirely different challenge to make such technology work in densely populated Indian cities.”

Nevertheless, if Ambani does manage to launch pod taxis in India, it will be another feather in his hat of tech-related achievements.