CHINA, which prides itself as the world’s biggest promoter of electric cars, is also seeking to be a leader in the advancing technology of self-driving cars. It’s a step-by-step process.
The first step is applying some autonomous driving features, such as automatic emergency braking and collision avoidance, to existing auto production. The government expects half of new delivered vehicles to be equipped with driver-assistance features by the end of 2020, according to an industry development plan issued in April.
China will support the entry of more sophisticated hands-free vehicles in the market by 2025, according to the plan. By that year, the government expects 80 percent of new delivered vehicles to be equipped with autonomous driving features.
China is the world’s biggest auto market, so government development plans are not something that automakers will ignore. Major carmakers and auto-parts suppliers are stepping up efforts to test self-driving cars and technologies in China.
“Car manufacturers, auto-parts companies, technology companies, information technology firms, and start-ups are actively working in the field of autonomous driving in China,” said Bill Peng, a partner with PwC’s Strategy&. “Capital is flowing into that market.”
Germany’s BMW announced earlier this month that it has completed more than 16,000 kilometers of autonomous test driving in China. About 40 BMW 7 series prototype cars will be tested on roads globally this year, the company said.
“We will continue to accumulate basic data to promote autonomous driving technology development in China,” said Robert Bruckmeier, vice president of the connected and automated driving lab at BMW China Services Ltd. “BMW has showcased its Level 3 and 4 autonomous driving technologies, with the demonstration of its prototype car in the National Intelligent Connected Vehicle (Shanghai) Pilot Zone.”
While traditional car manufacturers such as BMW are applying self-driving technology to their own cars, Baidu, one of the largest Internet companies in the world, has announced plans to collaborate with automakers by building an autonomous car platform called Project Apollo.
The platform will host developments in vehicles, hardware, software and cloud data services for self-driving vehicles.
Baidu also said it will introduce autonomous driving in restricted environments in July, expanding to uncongested roadways by the end of this year. By 2020, the company said it plans to introduce fully autonomous driving.
Baidu conducted road tests of its autonomous vehicles in Beijing in December 2015. Last November, it held open trial operations of the vehicles in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province.
During the recent CES Asia exhibition in Shanghai, Baidu offered test rides of its autonomous driving vehicle. The self-driving car has a camera inside the car in front of the driver. The camera is used to capture the surrounding road conditions and upload the information to a computer placed in the trunk to control the vehicle.
“This self-driving model is in collaboration with Great Wall Motor Co,” said Wang Fei, who works at Baidu.
The test rides had the car doing laps on a test track in an enclosed environment. The steering wheel, brakes and gas pedal were automatically operated. A working staff from Baidu sat in the driver’s seat lest anything go awry.
“There are two kinds of autonomous driving,” said David Zhang, an independent automotive consultant. “One consists of a series of sensors and laser radar, and the cost is relatively high. Baidu’s self-driving car is mainly operated through the use of a camera in front of the car, which is a more economical alternative. The computer can survey surrounding road conditions, do data processing and handle vehicle control.”
Internet companies and carmakers are converging in research and development, noted Yang Jing, an associate director in Fitch Ratings’ Asia-Pacific corporate research division in Shanghai.
“Car manufacturers can provide the car itself, while Internet companies such as Baidu are adept at data processing and high-definition maps in China,” she said. “Both sides need to work with each other to promote the development of autonomous driving.”
German auto-parts giant Continental has just unveiled a website for Chinese netizens as a communications forum on autonomous driving. The website includes the latest news and insights on the industry.
“Chinese automotive and technology industries have been strongly focused on developing autonomous driving technology in recent years,” noted Enno Tang, president and chief executive officer of Continental China. “Autonomous driving has become a popular topic. That’s why Continental is launching the website as a long-term initiative, inviting stakeholders in China.”
Werner Koestler, senior vice president of Continental, said Chinese consumers are more welcoming toward the concept of self-driving cars than people in Germany.
“Governments support and consumer motivation are two key elements promoting the development of autonomous driving in China,” he said.
The road ahead
But the road ahead is not all smooth sailing. Mishaps in street tests with autonomous vehicles around the world still grab headlines and stoke safety concerns. There is still a lot of mileage between vision and reality.
“Autonomous driving is a ‘foreseeable future,’ which means it is still far away from today’s roads,” said Kevin Li, director of auto industry at Strategy Analytics. “It is a combination of big data, in-depth machine learning and high-definition maps. If a company can meet all of those requirements, then the cost of self-driving cars will be reduced and technology will be competitive. At present, it is still far away from the mass production.”
Yuan Liusheng, an analyst with WAYS Information Technology Co, said regulations governing autonomous driving in China still need to be formulated and infrastructure facilities need to be adapted to self-driving cars in the future.
Japan and several European countries are reportedly drafting common standards for autonomous driving, but at the regulatory level, the US leads the pack.
“Road and traffic conditions in China are more complicated than in the US,” said consultant Zhang. “That adds to the difficulty of testing self-driving cars in central areas of cities for the foreseeable future.”
According to an industry report by Nielsen and ifeng.com, it will take 10 to 15 years for autonomous driving to come into the mainstream market of China.
Consumers, for their part, like the idea. About two-thirds of respondents in the report’s survey said self-driving cars are the future of automobiles, while about a fifth said they think autonomous driving still needs time and regulation. Only 14 percent of respondents said it will be hard to introduce autonomous driving in China.
The survey said the primary concern among consumers is safety and who bears the cost and responsibility for any traffic accidents that may occur. They are also leery about the sticker prices for self-driving cars.
“Consumer acceptance of autonomous driving is relatively high,” said Peng. “About 70 percent of the Chinese consumers buy a first car every year. They are quite nervous when driving. Self-driving features are more easily accepted by these consumers. Autonomous driving is also seen as a godsend for those stuck sitting in traffic gridlock in urban centers.”