SHANGHAI – Will China lead the path toward higher levels of autonomous driving beyond Level 2 advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), which is becoming widely available as a feature on new cars sold in the country?
It’s possible, according to Aptiv CTO Glen De Vos.
“I think it has the opportunity,” said De Vos. “What’s unique about China is that there is tremendous consumer pull, strong influence from consumer, also very good policy environment and good push from the government. The third piece you need is technology, and the final piece you need is capital to invest. We see all of those ingredients here. So the opportunity for China to accelerate and potentially deploy (autonomous vehicles) earlier is very real. It will partly depend on how the government and policies will evolve. For us, we see this as a compelling opportunity.”
De Vos made the comments in an exclusive interview on April 17 at Auto Shanghai 2019, just before the global technology company enabling the future of mobility made the announcement to establish its China Autonomous Mobility Center in Jiading, Shanghai.
The China Autonomous Mobility Center becomes the company’s fifth major autonomous engineering hub globally, joining existing operations in Boston, Singapore, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas. The move expands its industry-leading autonomous driving capabilities to the Chinese market and furthers the company’s global leadership in automated driving solutions and its commitment to commercially deploying the technology. The Center will focus on development and application of the company’s L4 autonomous driving technology.
The four ingredients that De Vos mentioned above were exactly the reasons behind why it chose to set up the Center in China, according to De Vos.
“We will be doing both development as well as testing here. Ultimately the intention would be to do fleet deployment. We will start with development and testing in the market, then over time working with ride-hailing network providers similar to what we are doing with Lyft in Las Vegas. Our intent is to deploy a ride-hailing network here in Shanghai in a similar fashion like we do in Las Vegas.”
The company is in fact actively in discussions with potential local partners for mapping and commercial deployment of Aptiv’s vehicles in China. This is consistent with the company’s approach in other markets. It allows Aptiv to gain real-world experience with the general public and supports broader technology and IP development, two critical components to grow commercial deployment and develop future mobility solutions.
Aptiv was the first to commercially deploy autonomous vehicles globally. It has been giving rides to consumers in Las Vegas since May 2018, in partnership with ride-hailing app, Lyft, and is conducting Automated Mobility on Demand research, development and testing in Boston, Pittsburgh and Singapore. To date, Aptiv’s commercial program has provided 40,000 paid autonomous rides, servicing more than 2,100 destinations across the city of Las Vegas and Clark County, while maintaining a nearly perfect average passenger rating of 4.95 out of five stars.
The new Center in China will likely help Aptiv to emulate and transfer this experience and deploy a similar commercial program in Shanghai. A stretch of open road spanning about 11.1 km in Jiading that opened in 2018 as one of China’s first batch of intelligent connected vehicle testing zones is expected to provide favorable road testing conditions for the commercial program.
Leading the way will be Dr. Wei Junqing, Aptiv’s vice president of engineering for autonomous driving, who has returned to China and been given the task of forming a team to launch that program.
Dr. Wei, who holds a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading universities in the area of autonomous vehicle research, founded Ottomatika, a Pittsburgh-based company that provides software and system solutions for autonomous driving in 2013. That company was acquired by Aptiv in 2015, when Dr. Wei led the establishment and operation of Aptiv Pittsburg Tech Center and Las Vegas Autonomous Mobility Operation Center, and formed up an engineering team of over 200 employees, building and operating a fleet of over 100 automated driving taxis and development platforms.
Dr. Wei is expected to bring key talent back from the U.S. and work with local resources to form a local development team.
“We are going to establish R&D capabilities with core technologies and talent, not just bringing operations and production over here,” Dr. Wei said in an interview. “We are going to use the smartest engineers from China and develop in China products that are suitable for the Chinese market.”
The first vehicle for testing at the Center is already in place, according to Simon Yang, president of Aptiv Asia Pacific, and the goal is to have more vehicles in place by the end of this year for testing.
“We have a 4-6 month plan where we will be applying for testing license, have vehicles in place and conduct road test planning,” Yang said in an interview. “We also need to finalize partnerships to establish a platform for commercial deployment. This is all ongoing as we speak.”
De Vos estimated that next year, the new Center is expected to have a team of about 400-500 people.
For now, he’s seeing tremendous growth for Level 2 automated driving features in China, both with global OEMs as well as with local OEMs.
“Those are features that consumers really want. So there is a strong pull from the consumer, the OEMs can make a lot of money, and those are high margin options for the OEMs,” he said. “So across the board, whether it’s global OEMs like Volkswagen, BMW or local OEMs like JAC and Geely, we are seeing a strong pull from Level 2 and even Level 3 systems.”
In fact, of the top 15 selling car models in China in 2018, 13 were equipped with Aptiv’s technologies and products. SAIC-GM’s Buick GL8 MPV and the recently launched GAC NE Aion S, for example, are equipped with Aptiv’s ADAS systems.
Aptiv’s strategy for the Chinese market since it entered in 1993 as Delphi Automotive Systems has been design in China for China and build in China for China, rather than taking what it does in the U.S. or Europe and try to sell it here, according to De Vos. “From Day one we recognized that doesn’t work. This is a market that has a unique set of needs and opportunities, to best serve it, you need to be here and be part of the whole fabric of the China market,” he said. “We from the very beginning said that we are going to get our operations in China and be independent.”