When it comes to driverless cars in China, you may think that it sounds like science fiction. But the day when fully autonomous vehicles will drive themselves on public roads may be not that far off: Baidu, China’s largest search engine provider and Tesla, the world’s biggest electric vehicle maker and biggest electric vehicles (EVs) manufacturer in China, already plan to put their driverless cars on the road by 2018. China has been quietly progressing, as car expert Prof David Bailey of the Aston Business School says: “There is a lot more going on in China than many in the West have realized.”
The Chinese Big Players Make Progress on the Road to Driverless Cars in China
In the driverless car race, the Chinese big players are Baidu, Changan, and Volvo.
Baidu made the headlines at the very beginning of this month when it received an autonomous vehicle testing permit from California’s Department of Motor vehicle. This should enable Baidu to accelerate the development of driverless cars in China. The tests started in December 2015, when a modified BMW 3-Series GT successfully navigated on a 30-kilometer test route through Beijing traffic, in fully autonomous mode. Baidu has focused its efforts on two key technologies: deep learning and HD mapping. Deep learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, will give driverless cars optimal image sensing and recognition, and will enable them to learn on their own so they can make faster decisions. Mapping is crucial to developing driverless cars in China because cars will compare maps with what they “see” through sensors. Jing Wang, senior vice president of Baidu and general manager of Baidu’s Autonomous Driving Unit, affirms that Baidu is the first Chinese company to produce high-resolution 3D maps that are precise down to the centimeter. Baidu will not manufacture the cars itself but outsource production to an existing Chinese automaker.
Volvo, the Swedish carmaker owned by the Chinese firm Zhejiang Geely, will organize in 2017 the “most advanced autonomous driving experiment” in China, Sweden, and the UK. This will be part of the DriveMe program that will offer the opportunity to 100 volunteers to test driverless Volvo XC90s on public roads in everyday conditions. This experiment is believed to be a significant move to establish Volvo at the forefront of development. Volvo plans to roll out its first self-driving car in 2020.
Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. teamed up with Ford. In April 2016, two Changan autonomous cars drove more than 2,000 kilometers in six days from the company’s headquarters in Chongqing to Beijing. According to the company, the autonomous cars were equipped with cameras and radar to test automatic cruising, lane-keeping and changing, assisted driving during traffic congestion, and speed reduction through traffic sign recognition and voice control. Changan’s ambition is to produce highly automated cars by 2020.
Research on autonomous vehicles also takes place in car companies, tech firms, and universities, which is quietly progressing in the race to driverless cars in China.
What is the position of China in the race to driverless cars?
From a global perspective, according to the Automated Vehicles Index, Q3 2016 provided by Roland Berger, China is the fifth among the world’s leading automotive nations when analyzing the industry and the market dimensions together. China is tied with Japan and overtaken by the US, Germany, Sweden and the UK in this order.
Roland Berger takes into account five indicators to update the countries’ competitive positions: availability of functions, the state of development, the share of research areas, the level of expertise, sales figures, and automated vehicles market share.
China is lagging behind because of its weaknesses in the industry dimension. Automated driving functions are entirely unavailable in China according to the study, even though their state of development is considered as “medium.” Taking into account the availability and the state of development of the functions together, the leading country is Germany, where all original equipment manufacturer (OEMs) are committed to intensive development activities, and automated driving functions serve as a competitive advantage in the premium segment. Regarding the level of expertise, China is the country that has the lowest among the nine leading countries involved in the study. The US gets the highest level of competence in the world. Another weakness of the Chinese driverless car industry is the percentage of research areas covered: it is again the lowest among the countries involved. Germany reaches the highest percentage of research areas covered.
However, China holds a significant advantage from its market potential. Even if the automated vehicles market share is still quite low, China benefits from a high sales figure. Indeed, it is the second nation in the world for this indicator, only surpassed by the US. Here are some reasons why the Chinese market should be favorable to self-drive vehicles.
China is actively backing the development of self-driving technology
There is one pragmatic reason why China should be favorable to driverless cars: autonomous public transportation will help reduce the number of cars in cities and bring down air pollution level as well. The US has traffic, but China even more as it became the largest automotive market in the world in 2009 and needed to find new solutions to reduce pollution.
Many Chinese cities are already investing in infrastructure that will support autonomous vehicles. The southeastern city of Wuhu announced its ambition to be the world’s first city to embrace the driverless car. The city launched a three-year program in which self-driving vehicles (buses, cars, and vans) circulate in designated areas. If this three-year program meets success, Wuhu residents will be authorized to own self-driving cars.
For China, the push for autonomous cars is also part of a state initiative to urge manufacturers to upgrade their technology, as lower-cost countries are emerging and competing for labor-intensive factory jobs. Innovation is now a priority for the Chinese government, as China should no longer be the “workshop of the world”.
Beyond this, it is crystal-clear that China entered the driverless car race and is competing with the rest of the world, and above all with the US. China is already backing self-driving technology heavily and pushing Baidu ahead. From the legislative standpoint, the Chinese government has the power to “rapidly mandate the kind of wholesale changes that would be required to unleash self-driving cars”, whereas the US government is to release more autonomous car guidelines this year, giving a lot of control over autonomous cars testing to the States. For now, the outcome of this global driverless car race is uncertain, but Boston Consulting Group has already predicted that China will be the largest self-driving market by 2035, taking up to 30% of sales in 2035.
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