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