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Driverless cars could arrive in China sooner than we think

Last few months witnessed big developments in autonomous driving vehicles, particularly in China. In September, Zoyte Holding Group, a small Chinese carmaker, announced it will start production of its first self-driving vehicle in 2018. Baidu, the market pioneer of autonomous driving, plans to commercialize driverless technology by 2018 and to achieve mass production of cars by 2020. Also in September, California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued the U.S. subsidiary of Baidu Inc. a permit to test self-drive vehicles in California, which would allow Baidu USA to test its autonomous driving technologies in the Golden State.

On October 19, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said his company plans to make its cars capable of fully autonomous driving by the end of next year, which is an aggressive deadline and it has pushed other carmakers to join the race to put robot cars on the road.

In the race to develop autonomous driving cars, China currently is behind the U.S. and Japan, but thanks to a combination of financial resource, comparatively low regulation, and a government that falls over itself to help companies get going, China is able to move much faster than any other countries at the moment. Here’s who is in the race in China to make driverless cars a reality. 

  • Chang’an: Two driverless cars drove more than 2,000 km from Chongqing to Beijing using cameras and radars to complete the trip in six days – Chang’an says it was able to do research on lane-keeping and changing, traffic sign recognition, automatic cruising and voice control. The firm also stated at the Beijing Auto Show in April its ambitious plan to produce highly automated vehicles by 2025.
  • Dongfeng-Renault: An electric self-driving car of Renault will be tested to run on a 2-km-long lakeside road in an autonomous driving (AD) demonstration zone in Wuhan, Hubei Province, where the joint venture is based. It is the first open AD demonstration Zone in China and is expected to go into operation by December. In the demonstration zone, visitors will be able to witness and experience Renault AD vehicles and technologies in an open area.
  • Baidu: Baidu and BMW witnessed a driverless car drive 30 km through the Beijing traffic, managing a range of manoeuvres, including U-turns, lane changes and merging into traffic from ramps. This Summer, Baidu CFO Jennifer Li has announced the internet search giant is planning to take the lead on artificial intelligence for autonomous driving in China by bringing its first autonomous car to the market by 2018, while a mass production version is expected to commence by 2020. At Baidu 2016 World Conference in Beijing, CEO Robin Li announced that Nvidia and Baidu have agreed to collaborate on the incorporation of artificial intelligence in a cloud-to-car autonomous vehicle platform. And Baidu has added fuel to its effort to put driverless cars into mass production within five years with its multimillion dollar investment in a major U.S. producer of Lidar sensors, a key technology that helps the cars “see” their surrounding environment by using light to measure distance this year.
  • Geely and Volvo: Chinese-owned Swedish carmaker Volvo is testing 100 driverless cars on public roads in “everyday conditions.” It has established a Sino-Swedish team for the technology development. In August, Volvo announced it would team up with ride hailing company Uber to develop driverless cars and invest in $300 million in a project that will deploy a fleet of 100 self-driving XC90 plug-in hybrid crossovers this fall in Pittsburgh. In September, Volvo said it is creating a jointly owned company with Swedish supplier Autoliv to develop autonomous driving software and advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous driving system, which will be used by Volvo and sold to other automakers. The planed delivery time of drivers assistance systems is 2019 and autonomous driving systems by 2021.
  • LeEco: At the Beijing Auto Show in April, LeEco made a big splash presenting its concept car LeSEE, which at least in the presentation impressed with wide-ranging capabilities. And the company is also investing in the U.S. electric car startup, Faraday Future, and renamed itself LeEco from LeTV to underscore its ecosystem business strategy, which envisions that the future of mobility will be increasingly autonomously and connected. Faraday Future has been testing its driverless cars on California highways after securing permission from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in June. In February 2016, Aston Martin announced to set up a new joint venture with LeEco to develop and manufacture its first electric super car. On October 19, LeEco CEO YT (Yueting) Jia unveiled the LeSEE Pro concept equipped with autopilot technology for fully autonomous driving in San Francisco and made announcement that the first Faraday Future production ready car will debut in January at CES in Las Vegas.
  • FAW Group: FAW has been developing an artificial intelligence system to help its driverless cars, and it has demonstrated intelligence features on a Red Flag H7 including automated parking and self-driving. The new H7 is aiming to hit the market in 2018.
  • Zotye: The small Chinese carmaker specializing in budget cars has released plans to launch a driverless SUV later this year, and it will start production of its first self-driving vehicle in 2018. A prototype already rolled off Zoyte’s assembly line in May. Up until now, the vehicle has completed test drives of 6,000 km, according to a recent statement. 

How driverless is “driverless?”

In early August, a Model S with the AutoPilot software engaged and driver’s hands off the steering wheel hit a Volkswagen Santana in Beijing. Following the accident, Tesla altered the translation on its website and brochure about the AutoPilot system in China to clarify it’s a driver assistance system, although some of its salesmen still use “autonomous driving” to describe the function. Generally speaking, dealer salespeople have no clue what they are selling when it comes to technology. So there are things we should know to keep self-driving safe. According to authorities in the U.S., there are five levels of autonomous driving: 

  • Level 0, no automation: All the driving and features are down to you.
  • Level 1, function-specific automation: One or more features are automated, such as electronic stability control.
  • Level 2, combined function automation: At least two automated features work together, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.
  • Level 3, limited self-driving: The car does all the driving “under certain traffic conditions,” the driver is only needed for “occasional control,” which is what the Google car and Chinese projects are aiming for.
  • Level 4, full self-driving: The car does all the driving for the entire trip; it doesn’t even need a driver to be in the car anymore.

 

What is the market potential?

According to data from Darrel West’s report Moving Forward: Self-Driving Vehicles in China, Europe, Japan, Korea, and the U.S., in China, it is estimated that by 2035, there will be around 8.6 million autonomous vehicles on the roads, with about 3.4 million likely to be fully autonomous, while 5.2 million are semi-autonomous.

New technology usually starts out at an astronomical price and then comes down years later, so self-driving vehicles are likely to spread in niche markets before they become popular in broader consumer markets. The initial cost of automated cars will be high, due to additional cost of sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence systems. 

Freed from the task of driving, the idle driver sitting in a self-driving car will have to look for things to do, such as watching movies, WeChat with friends or searching the closest restaurants.

The autonomous vehicle content delivery industry could be worth up to $5 billion, according to Elliot Garbus, general manager of the transportation solutions division at Intel, at an event hosted by SAE International in Detroit in September. At the recent Paris Motor Show, French supplier Faureica SA presented its cabin concept of future autonomous cars. According to Rob Huber, vice president of innovation and ventures, Faurecia is working on an “active wellness” seat, which employs biometric sensors and responds to passenger stress, drowsiness and other symptoms.

 

Conclusion

If a chairman of an automaker told you 10 years ago or even 5 years ago that his company was going to produce a vehicle without a steering wheel, he would have been deemed crazy. But with more and more automated fleets, which are loaded with the state-of-the-art LiDAR, radar and camera-based systems logging millions of test miles around the country, CEOs came to realize that the future of driverless vehicles is not so far away, and some have already established cooperation with tech companies. And internet giants such as Baidu, Tencent, LeEco and Alibaba have all developed their own connected car platforms and kicked off their autonomous driving software engineering projects.

Given the unique context of China’s urban transportation challenges: air pollution, traffic congestion, large number of accidents and fatalities, China is currently developing draft regulations for self-driving vehicles, and is soliciting industry and government comments to prepare for going to the State Council for final approval. And a roadmap plan for having highway-ready self-driving vehicles within 5 years and autonomous vehicles for urban driving by 2025 has already been released, which pushes self-driving vehicles to fit with China’s plan for a paradigm shift from heavy industry and low-end manufacturing to an economy driven by high-tech, consumers and service industries.

In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest automobile market by volume, and has remained the global leader in vehicle sales ever since. Nowadays China is not only the largest auto market in the world, but also the hottest spot for mobility technology and business model innovations. The Chinese auto industry started producing vehicles decades behind other countries and a lot of the core technologies aren’t in Chinese hands, such as engines, chassis and transmissions. But with intelligent vehicles, the core technology shifts from engines and transmissions to artificial intelligence, IOT and sensors. That would be a good chance for China to catch up and could take over the world’s technology and auto markets.

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