China gets up to speed in com­pe­ti­tion for driver­less cars

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS - AN­THONY WAR­REN

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.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Re­searchers at Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore have rolled out a self-driv­ing mo­bil­ity scooter.

AFP

Chi­nese tech com­pany LeEco launched its elec­tric bat­tery driver­less con­cept car in Bei­jing in April.

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