China gets up to speed in competition for driverless cars
For China Daily
Forget drones, supercomputers and robots: The battle for leadership in artificial intelligence, or AI, is being fought on four wheels. And it’s coming soon to China’s streets and highways.
China’s advantages in the driverless car market stem from having lagged behind other countries in traditional motor technology over the last century, said Wang Jing, senior vice-president of Baidu and general manager of its autonomous driving unit.
This shift to AI and other advanced technologies has led to the scales being rebalanced, Wang told Bloomberg. No longer does a single country hold an overall advantage.
“With electric cars, with intelligent cars, the core technology shifts from the engine and gearbox to artificial intelligence, and that’s an area where China is very close to the United States, giving China the chance to catch up and seize leadership,” Wang said.
Speaking to China Daily, Albert Lam, a research assistant professor in the department of electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Hong Kong, noted that although the US is taking the lead, “China is catching up”.
“Depending on how much more resources China will invest in autonomous vehicle technologies, China definitely has the capacity to overtake the US,” Lam said.
Lam likened auto-driving vehicles to “hardware”, and AI to “software”, adding that “we always need some software to operate the hardware”.
With the system reset, a number of Chinese automakers are moving to bring their own self-driving vehicles to the public. Geely and Chang’an, for instance, both intend to unleash driverless cars on the roads before 2020.
Chinese tech firm LeEco also recently showed off a self-driving electric car, the LeSEE Pro, in Beijing and San Francisco. With $2 billion invested in a factory in eastern China, and plans to make 400,000 cars a year, the electric-powered concept is part of the company’s plan to fight China’s smog problem with electric cars, rather than gas-powered ones.
And recently, bus manufacturer Yutong reportedly ran an autonomous public bus through the streets of Zhengzhou, in Central China’s Henan province.
But it is not just traditional carmakers hoping to cash in. Originally a search engine provider, Baidu is now branching into transportation, media and innovative ideas. It aims to outsource its technology to carmakers, who will apply it to their own vehicles.
Baidu designs are being tested in California and Wuzhen, in East China’s Zhejiang province, while its so-called supertrucks — autonomous long-haul vehicles — are set to go on trial across China soon.
Earlier this year, Didi Chuxing, China’s popular mobile transport platform, gobbled up the majority of US-based rival Uber’s China operations. Both companies have been working on autonomous taxi services.
To build the powerful technology required to put these cars on the road, Chinese companies are drawing upon the country’s human talent and investing increasing amounts of money into research and development.
Among such high-profile shifts was Baidu’s canceling in August of its project to courier food deliveries by drone. Instead, the company rolled its AI technology into other fields.
A month later, the company launched a $200 million venture capital unit to invest directly in AI technology, giving a serious boost to China’s homegrown AI development.
A recent report by IHS Automotive, an industry analysis organization, claimed that by 2035 the US and Japan will be in second and third place respectively in sales of self-driving cars. By comparison, China will surge ahead with more than 8.6 million driverless vehicles on the road.
Electric vehicle sales in China in 2015 (including those with limited self-driving functions) were just shy of 189,000, Forbes reported.
Despite this amounting to less than 1 percent of all car sales in China last year, it is still an increase of more than 223 percent over 2014 sales. With automakers developing more homegrown electric cars, the figure is set to increase.
Chinese consumers are eager to adopt new technologies. A survey by the University of Michigan in the US found some 90 percent of Chinese respondents were happy to ride in a driverless car. It also found less than 50 percent of respondents from Western countries or Japan would be happy in the same position.
Compared with other nations, Chinese respondents also saw autonomous vehicles shortening travel time, shaving insurance costs and improving public safety.
Safety is a primary focus in the advancement of driverless technologies. Analysts say the number of traffic accidents and deaths will drop significantly with the introduction of self-driving vehicles.
Researchers at National University of Singapore have rolled out a self-driving mobility scooter.
Chinese tech company LeEco launched its electric battery driverless concept car in Beijing in April.