Inkstone
    Apr
    23
    2018
    Apr
    23
    2018
    China’s self-driving cars want to overtake the US
    China’s self-driving cars want to overtake the US
    TECH

    China’s self-driving cars want to overtake the US

    Triangle 4
    arrow left
    arrow right
    by
    Zigor Aldama
    Zigor Aldama
    Subscribe to the Inkstone newsletter
    By registering you must agree to our T&Cs

    “Snow is unusual in Shanghai,” says Li Xiao, an engineer at the National Intelligent Connected Vehicle Pilot Zone, “so we have to take the opportunity to test the vehicle in the most adverse weather conditions.”

    Li and colleague Chen Dong are about to oversee a trial of a driverless electric bus, at the first testing area for autonomous vehicles in China.

    Covering two square miles and capable of replicating a range of road conditions, the zone has a section of highway, a tunnel to simulate the loss of positioning signals and huge metallic structures holding canvases printed with photographs of old Shanghai.

    Testing the driverless bus.
    Testing the driverless bus. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    The overall effect is dystopian, enhanced by the test cars of a number of companies, which are running around covered in colorful fabrics. The brands don’t want to disclose their secrets, so photography is forbidden.

    Subscribe to the Inkstone newsletter
    By registering you must agree to our T&Cs

    Snow has settled on the minibus’ sensors, but “the vehicle is equipped with systems to analyze the surroundings”, says an unfazed Li.

    “It has a radar that can detect objects, but it doesn’t recognize what they are,” he continues, as his colleague sets up the on-board computers. “That’s the job of the high-definition cameras. They capture all around and a powerful processor assesses each object in the images to decide every move in real time.”

    High-definition cameras mounted on the bus record everything on the road.
    High-definition cameras mounted on the bus record everything on the road. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    Programmers will analyze all the data and refine the ways the vehicle responds to various conditions.

    “In the near future, roads will also send information to vehicles,” Li says. “Self-driving cars, buses and trucks will communicate both with the infrastructure and with other vehicles, making driving much safer than it is now.”

    “Traffic jams will be a thing of the past,” Li promises, with a broad smile.

    Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night will stay these self-driving buses from their route.
    Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night will stay these self-driving buses from their route. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    The bus moves at just 3mph, and both engineers keep a close watch at every turn.

    “We have tested it at 60km/h [37 mph], but not in these conditions and with people aboard,” the engineer says.

    It is unnerving to see the bus drive with nobody at the wheel, but the ride is smooth. The vehicle reads traffic signals, but there are no other obstacles on the track today. The snow would damage the dummies scientists use to simulate pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles.

    “When the weather is suitable, we test the bus’ behavior during unexpected events,” Li says. “Humans don’t always drive or walk the way they should.”

    Engineer Li Xiao next to the computer that drives the bus.
    Engineer Li Xiao next to the computer that drives the bus. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    Real world test

    They know this well in Jiading. Home to the Chinese Grand Prix and a host of automotive industries, the huge northeastern district of Shanghai was, on March 1, chosen to be the site for the public testing of autonomous vehicles. Two domestic car companies were given the first license plates that allow the running of autonomous automobiles in real conditions, along 3.5 miles of public roads, where the pedestrians are made of flesh and blood.

    “These are the first steps towards making China a pioneer in the development of autonomous vehicles,” Chen Hailin, deputy director of the pilot zone, told the South China Morning Post.

    Self-driving cars on the streets of Jiading.
    Self-driving cars on the streets of Jiading. Photo: Handout

    But the cars on the streets of Jiading are not fully automated yet. According to guidelines published last month, companies allowed to test here are required to establish a remote monitoring data platform, so their vehicles’ every move is recorded, and to purchase accident insurance of at least $790,000 per car. Test drivers must always be at the wheel and each should have more than 50 hours of experience of automated driving systems.

    Jeff Cai, an auto analyst at J.D. Power China, tells Inkstone that China is leading the US in some areas in driverless technology, such as in the development of 5G wireless networks, which are essential for navigation. 

     

    Group 5
    In the future, vehicles won’t even have a steering wheel
    -
    Dong Yang, China Association of Automobile Manufacturers

    By 2020, Chen expects to have 10,000 autonomous vehicles in operation across Shanghai, including driverless buses, like the one Li is testing, working at tourist sites. By 2030, China expects fully autonomous vehicles to account for 10% of car sales.

    “We already see assisted-driving vehicles like Tesla, and we will soon have cars that drive themselves in certain conditions where autonomous driving is easier and less dangerous: in a traffic jam or on expressways,” Dong Yang, executive vice-chairman of the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, said during an automotive forum organized by the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in 2016.

    “In the future, vehicles won’t even have a steering wheel… And, combined with the zero-emission engines, it will provide a clean, safe – 90% of accidents are caused by human error – productive and relaxing mobility.”

    Canvases printed with photos of old Shanghai line the National Intelligent Connected Vehicle Pilot Zone.
    Canvases printed with photos of old Shanghai line the National Intelligent Connected Vehicle Pilot Zone. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    Danger on the road

    But there will be hiccups. On March 23, 38-year-old Apple engineer Walter Huang died in California when his Tesla Model X was on autopilot and crashed into a divider that separated the carpool lane. The car caught fire, and Huang did not escape.

    Although the accident is still under investigation, Tesla – which has “never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash” – remains committed to the development of autonomous vehicles.

    On March 18, an autonomous Uber car hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, while she was pushing her bicycle. Elaine Herzberg, 49, became the first pedestrian killed by a self-driving car and the accident prompted Uber to stop testing in real conditions.

    Painting a diamond pattern onto the road gives it a rugged texture which helps autonomous systems to read the road.
    Painting a diamond pattern onto the road gives it a rugged texture which helps autonomous systems to read the road. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    Driving forward

    Despite the obstacles, China wants to lead the world in driverless technology. “I believe we are in a good position to do so, because the country is already a pioneer in many of the technologies shaping autonomous vehicles,” Chen Hailin says. “Chinese companies are developing the new 5G networks, and Shanghai will have them installed in 2020. Their capability will greatly improve communications between vehicles, and the city will keep investing in infrastructure adaptation.”

    Beijing, too, is betting on autonomous vehicles. On March 23, authorities in the Chinese capital gave tech giant Baidu permission to test its driverless vehicles on dozens of suburban roads, covering 65 miles.

    Group 5
    Highly autonomous vehicles will be a reality on highways by December 2020
    -
    Gu Weihao, head of Baidu’s self-driving program

    “We believe highly autonomous vehicles will be a reality on highways by December 2020,” Gu Weihao, head of Baidu’s self-driving program, said at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Asia. “There are a few reasons why China is a good place to test them. First, the mess in many streets makes driving here a challenging issue,” he laughed. “Second, because people support this technology more than in other countries.”

    According to a global survey conducted in 2016 by Boston Consulting Group, the Chinese are the most supportive of autonomous vehicles, with 75% in favor of them. By contrast, that percentage drops to 52% for Americans and 36% for Japanese.

    Tech giant Baidu is investing heavily in driverless cars.
    Tech giant Baidu is investing heavily in driverless cars. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    Open road, open source

    At CES Asia, Gu said, “But we have to cooperate among companies to accelerate the development of the autonomous vehicle.” That’s why Baidu has made public its self-driving car platform – the Apollo project – in a way similar to how Google has with the Android operating system for mobile devices.

    “Apollo provides an open, reliable and secure software platform for its partners to develop their own autonomous driving systems through on-vehicle and hardware platforms,” explains Baidu on its website. “As participation grows, more accumulated data becomes available. Compared to a closed ecosystem [such as that of Tesla]  Apollo can evolve faster, bring greater benefits to members.”

    Baidu’s vehicle-mapping software on shop at CES Asia.
    Baidu’s vehicle-mapping software on shop at CES Asia. Photo: Zigor Aldama

    Big data is crucial; Baidu creates the database and car­makers use it for their specific needs.

    “We have hundreds of cars going around all kinds of roads equipped with dozens of sensors,” Gu said. “They record not only the behavior of the vehicle, but also that of our driver and other drivers on the road. All this data is fed to the autonomous system so it can better predict what it will have to do in different situations.”

    “The car’s system learns from the best drivers. And the more companies test the Apollo, the better it gets,” Gu said. “We will need to drive for about 200 million miles without making any mistake to fine-tune all systems. But in the near future, autonomous cars will drive better than humans.”

    And not even a bit of snow will get in the way.

    ZIGOR ALDAMA
    ZIGOR ALDAMA
    Zigor is a contributor to Inkstone. He is an award-winning journalist who has been covering Asia from China since 1999.

    ZIGOR ALDAMA
    ZIGOR ALDAMA
    Zigor is a contributor to Inkstone. He is an award-winning journalist who has been covering Asia from China since 1999.

    arrow right
      Rotate the screen
      Please rotate for best experience.
      Your privacy is important. We wish to inform you what data we collect from you and how we process such data. Our Privacy Notice aims to comply with all relevant data privacy and protection laws. You should read the Privacy Notice in full here.