Autonomous driving industry rides tech and policies to a bright future
Roads and highways full of vehicles but minus emissions, traffic snarls and stressed-out drivers — this futuristic vision is materializing in China slowly but surely as the country's autonomous driving industry is on the verge of a golden period of development, company executives and experts said.
Policies, they said, are becoming increasingly clearer and open; technologies such as artificial intelligence and their applications like algorithms are becoming more powerful; and, what's more, costs of crucial components such as lidar are going down.
All these augur well for the healthy and robust development of the industry and commercialization of its products and technologies. So do a slew of policies rolled out recently to regulate the development of autonomous driving in the world's largest vehicle market.
As more autonomous driving vehicles get set to hit the road, experts highlight that more legal measures, better vehicle-road coordination and more testing experience are needed to ensure the sector's long-term sustainable development.
Jia Yuanhua, a professor of transportation engineering at the school of traffic and transportation at Beijing Jiaotong University, said the autonomous driving industry is nearing a "golden inflection point of growth", as the central and local government policies get increasingly open and clear.
On Sept 16, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology unveiled a guideline to promote the construction of industry standards for the internet-connected vehicles. The guideline detailed that by 2025, China will form systematic industry standards for internet-connected vehicles that can support high-level autonomous driving.
The move followed shortly after China announced its first national draft guideline on the use of autonomous driving vehicles for public transport in August. The Ministry of Transport said in the guideline that it will encourage the adoption of autonomous buses in enclosed Bus Rapid Transit or BRT systems and allow autonomous vehicles to offer taxi services under simple and relatively controllable scenarios.
Starting from Aug 1, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, a city that pioneered reform and opening-up in China, also started allowing fully autonomous vehicles, without human drivers, to run on certain roads, as the city unveiled the nation's first regulation tailored for smart and internet-connected vehicles.
The regulation also set rules for liability in car accidents that involve autonomous vehicles with or without drivers, helping fill the legal gap in China's smart car industry.
Chang Zhenting, secretary-general of the Autonomous Driving Industry Alliance for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, said China is improving its legal framework for the research and development, production, purchase and sale of autonomous vehicles, as the nation accelerates the commercialization of autonomous vehicles while ensuring public safety.
Meanwhile, technological advancements also lay a sounder foundation for potential larger-scale application of autonomous driving vehicles. Yu Qian, CEO and founder of Chinese autonomous driving startup QCraft, said the auto-grade sensors and computing power are developing rapidly, and the price of lidars used in self-driving cars has dropped significantly, which is quite suitable for the large-scale application of pre-equipped self-driving systems on auto vehicles.
If computing power is compared to the oxygen concentration in the environment, and the magnitude of sensor data are compared to food, then the oxygen concentration in the environment would enlarge and the food in the environment would be in abundance, which makes the scenario very suitable for the development of high-level autonomous driving companies, Yu said.
Starting from July, QCraft and ride-hailing company T3 began offering rides to passengers using self-driving cars within a restricted area in Jiangsu province's Suzhou, a city that neighbors Shanghai and where the companies are already testing the vehicles.
Lyu Jinghong, an intelligent mobility analyst at research firm BloombergNEF, said continuous testing on public roads, easing regulations and cost reductions in autonomous vehicle manufacturing will help accelerate the commercialization of self-driving cars.
According to a report issued by BloombergNEF, China will operate the world's largest robotaxi fleet with about 12 million units by 2040, followed by the United States, which is expected to have around 7 million autonomous vehicles.
China has the potential to become the world's largest market for autonomous vehicles, said consultancy McKinsey & Company, which estimates that such vehicles will make up more than 40 percent of new vehicle sales in China by 2040.
Data from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology showed that 30 percent of new vehicles sold in the first half of this year feature level 2 or driver assistance technologies. That means, around 3.61 million vehicles that hit the road from January to June already have functions like lane keep and cruise control.
Sensing the big growth potential, Chinese traditional carmakers, emerging electric vehicle startups and Chinese tech companies are all ramping up their push and doubling down on self-driving technologies.
Chinese smartphone vendor Xiaomi Corp, for instance, said it is running tests on 140 autonomous driving vehicles across the nation, as part of its broader push to tap into the self-driving industry for future development. The progress came after Xiaomi announced its entry into the competitive electric vehicle market more than one year ago.
Lei Jun, founder, chairman and CEO of Xiaomi, said the company plans to invest 3.3 billion yuan ($464.24 million) in the first research and development phase of its autonomous driving technology, and the size of the dedicated team now exceeds 500. By the end of the year, the team is expected to have more than 600 members.
Huawei Technologies Co is also beefing up self-driving ambition. In May, BAIC Bluepark's premium electric marque Arcfox launched the Alpha S HI sedan, the world's first model with Huawei's Harmony operating system and autonomous driving solutions.
The model sports 34 sensors including cameras and radar and Huawei's Kirin chip that has computing power of 400 tera operations per second. Yu Chengdong, head of Huawei's smart car business unit, said the model features "the world's most sophisticated autonomous driving hardware" among mass-produced vehicles.
Yu Kai, CEO of Horizon Robotics, the first Chinese company to commercialize self-designed processors for autonomous driving, said: "China is now the world's most vibrant market for smart electric vehicles and the most competitive arena for global tech companies that target intelligent driving. We believe China will also become a major source of innovation for the industry."