The long road to au­ton­o­mous mo­tor­ing

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Barry He The au­thor is a London-based colum­nist. Con­tact the writer at ed­i­tor@ mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com.

China’s driver­less-car race has ad­di­tional ben­e­fits for the coun­try — and the world — that will stretch far into the fu­ture

The con­cept of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles has been cap­tur­ing the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion world­wide for decades. Im­ages of cars that can ne­go­ti­ate ob­sta­cles at break­neck speeds with­out the need for a hu­man driver have, un­til re­cently, been a Hol­ly­wood fan­tasy re­served for sci­ence fic­tion films. How­ever, given re­cent leaps in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing, the world is keen to make this tech­nol­ogy a re­al­ity, with ma­jor play­ers in both China and the West rac­ing to be the first to achieve ve­hi­cle au­ton­omy.

The quest to pro­vide the first func­tional main­stream driver­less car ser­vice has not been easy. It has been a rough jour­ney, fraught with dan­ger and un­cer­tainty. This year there have al­ready been two ac­knowl­edged fa­tal­i­ties, both in­volv­ing the prod­ucts and ser­vices of Amer­i­can cor­po­ra­tions, where au­ton­o­mous sys­tems have been at­trib­uted as the cause.

The pub­lic back­lash that af­fected Tesla and Uber after these in­ci­dents in March has not, how­ever, been enough to stop the wheels of progress world­wide. After all, it is es­ti­mated that around 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple die from hu­man-er­ror-re­lated car fa­tal­i­ties ev­ery year, and there are many pro­po­nents of the de­crease in traf­fic and global fuel emis­sions that re­li­able driver­less tech­nol­ogy would bring. A study by re­search com­pany Strat­egy An­a­lyt­ics sug­gests that the world­wide driver­less ve­hi­cle mar­ket will be worth around $7 tril­lion by 2050, and will pro­vide the coun­tries that em­brace it with sig­nif­i­cant in­fras­truc­tural ad­van­tages over their hu­man coun­ter­parts.

The rush to bring driver­less tech­nol­ogy to the masses is in­tense, with China rapidly be­com­ing a sig­nif­i­cant com­peti­tor with the US in re­search and de­vel­op­ment. Ear­lier this month, the Chi­nese ride-share gi­ant Didi re­ceived ap­proval to test au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles in Cal­i­for­nia, com­ple­ment­ing progress the com­pany had made last year through open­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and au­ton­o­mous driv­ing re­search fa­cil­ity in the state. The ap­proval from the Cal­i­for­nia state reg­u­la­tor is Didi’s first li­cense for test­ing ve­hi­cles on pub­lic roads in the United States, where ac­com­mo­dat­ing safety reg­u­la­tions at­tract com­pa­nies from around the world.

The Cal­i­for­nian driver­less gold rush has at­tracted much at­ten­tion from China. Be­sides Didi, com­pa­nies such as Fara­day and Fu­ture, Baidu and Changan Au­to­mo­bile have all started test­ing in the US state. Com­pe­ti­tion is fierce, with more than 50 com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing within Cal­i­for­nia. Ap­ple har­bors am­bi­tions to have self-driv­ing cars on the roads as soon as 2019.

China’s in­vest­ment into this nascent tech­nol­ogy, how­ever, will be sure to pro­duce huge long-term fu­ture ben­e­fits that are only now start­ing to be­come mea­sur­able. A re­cent re­port by the In­tel­li­gent Trans­porta­tion So­ci­ety of Amer­ica projects that in­tel­li­gent trans­port sys­tems (known as ITS) could achieve a 2 to 4 per­cent re­duc­tion in oil con­sump­tion and pol­lut­ing green­house gas emis­sions each year as the tech­nol­ogy grad­u­ally be­comes more wide­spread.

This long-term game will play out ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cially for China, which has an ev­er­grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of more than 310 mil­lion driv­ers and is con­stantly look­ing for new ways to re­duce its car­bon foot­print. The preven­tion of gar­gan­tuan car­bon emis­sions will be ben­e­fi­cial to the wider world as the su­per­power’s growth be­comes more sus­tain­able and new tech­nolo­gies are in­tro­duced.

Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has said that AI and au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles are an in­te­gral part of his na­tional strat­egy to poise China as a world leader in new tech­nolo­gies for the com­ing decades. The heavy in­vest­ments by the coun­try into driver­less tech­nol­ogy have been spurred on by positive pub­lic per­cep­tions, some­thing the US has strug­gled with for sev­eral years.

In a Quartz sur­vey of 10,000 peo­ple, more than 63 per­cent of Chi­nese par­tic­i­pants thought that self-driv­ing cars would in­crease safety, com­pared with 34 per­cent of their US coun­ter­parts. This positive out­look was also echoed with re­ac­tions to the state­ment: “I am hope­ful about the fu­ture of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles.” An over­whelm­ing 83 per­cent of Chi­nese adults agreed with the state­ment, com­pared with just 50 per­cent of those from the US, in­di­cat­ing a vast dis­par­ity in at­ti­tudes be­tween the two coun­tries.

For the US to catch up with China’s pow­er­ful en­thu­si­asm and progress in the field, greater ed­u­ca­tion may be needed to in­form the pub­lic of the po­ten­tial ben­e­fits re­search and de­vel­op­ment in the field bring. This is a big deal as, in turn, the growth of a main­stream Chi­nese au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle mar­ket will also lead to an in­crease in the AI mar­ket in the long term, deep­en­ing the coun­try’s fu­tur­is­tic eco­nomic ecosys­tem.

It is clear that driver­less tech­nol­ogy is still in its in­fancy. How­ever ex­cit­ing it may be, it is not a case of who reaches the mar­ket first but, rather, get­ting suit­able in­fra­struc­ture in place to cre­ate a re­cep­tive pub­lic mar­ket in the long run, with sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment that ben­e­fits both China and other coun­tries in a safe man­ner. The race is on — but the road may be longer than first en­vis­aged.

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