The biggest market presents the greatest challenges
Automotive technology expert Zhang Junyi believes it could be 100 years before driverless cars finally take over the roads.
The head of the Greater China automotive team at management consultants Roland Berger insists the technology can work properly only when robots become more reliable than humans.
“That is the trigger point we have to reach. I think it will be at least 50 years, but it could also be 100 years before that occurs. It will happen, however. It will definitely happen.”
The 38-year-old is regarded as one of China’s top authorities on the new technology.
His views have been much in demand after excitement about autonomous cars at the Beijing Auto Show in the spring and the Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai in May.
China is set to be the world’s largest market for driverless cars, with Boston Consulting Group forecasting that it could make up one-fourth of the global market of 12 million by 2035.
A Roland Berger survey found that 96 percent of Chinese would be prepared to use an autonomous vehicle, compared with 58 percent in the United States.
“The Chinese are willing to ride in a driverless car, although that does not necessarily mean buy one,” Zhang said.
“Although China could be the biggest market for this technology, it actually presents the most challenges for it.
“Driving in China can be somewhat chaotic. It is not pure driving. You have so many obstacles on the road, from animals, bicycles and carts.”
Zhang said there is a great amount of confusion about what constitutes a driverless car, with people not realizing it is an evolutionary process.
“All the big car manufacturers will have launched a level three autonomous car by 2020. This will be the sort of car that can stop automatically, follow the road lanes, etc. The technology itself will mature around 2030, when we will achieve level five, but the main problem is not the technology but the overall environment where the cars can be used.”
Zhang said the biggest challenge is the legal framework in which they operate. At present it is the driver of a car who is usually responsible in the event of an accident. If a car had no steering wheel, that responsibility could fall on the vehicle manufacturer.
“This is the most difficult test actually. If you have a steering wheel the responsibility is down to the driver. If you do not have any interaction with the system or any screen, it all boils down to the carmaker. It is a very difficult and, in fact, weird area.”
Zhang said with internet giants Google and Baidu entering the market, one of the major questions is whether driverless cars are the product of new technology companies or still very much the territory of the automotive industry.
“This is always the debate. Do we need very accurate map technology as provided by companies such as Google or do we just need a smart car? The answer is that you need both technologies.”
Leaders in the technology are Mobileye, a company formed in Jerusalem in 1999 that makes advanced driver assistance systems, Nokia, which produces the Here mapping technology, and Google, whose Google Maps cannot be used in China.
Although there is a lot of excitement about Google entering the autonomous-car market, Zhang is not so impressed.
“What Google is thinking of is a low-speed car that will do about 40 km/h and not one for the highway. That sort of speed would only allow it to be used on a campus or similar places.”
With so much activity going on in autonomous cars in the country, some expect China to become more of a leader in this area than with traditional vehicles, where it has been very much a follower, particularly in cars over 1,600 cc.
“It is a catch-up process. China has just 30 to 40 years of car manufacturing experience, where the major manufacturers have 100 years or more. I do not think we should see this as a complete game-changer for China and it suddenly becoming a leader because you still need automotive technology to succeed in this area.”
Zhang believes Chinese car manufacturers will continue to collaborate with other car companies and with technology firms.
“China cannot do this alone, so the various companies will look to integrate their technologies, build up research and development facilities overseas and work with others.”
He believes the country does have one advantage in that it is able to designate large areas of its cities as testing areas for autonomous vehicles.
“This is not easy to do in many other countries. We have the largest playground for all the players to test out their cars.”
We (China) have the largest playground for all the players to test out their cars.”
head of the Greater China automotive team at management consultants Roland Berger