HANDS OFF THE WHEEL

无人驾驶时代离我们有多远?

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY DAVID DAW­SON

Can Baidu out­pace in­ter­na­tional be­he­moths like Google and Uber in the race to put au­ton­o­mous cars to mar­ket? The com­pany is one of sev­eral, in­clud­ing star­tups and in­dus­try giants, that are push­ing the lim­its of re­stric­tive reg­u­la­tions both in the US and China, to place them­selves ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion

Baidu CEO Robin Li made head­lines in July when he live streamed him­self in an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle on the out­skirts of Bei­jing. At­ten­dees at a con­fer­ence ob­served Li in the pas­sen­ger seat of a Baiduen­hanced Lin­coln Sedan mak­ing its way along an ex­press­way. “You can see the driver’s hands are com­pletely off the wheel,” Li told at­ten­dees.

There was only one prob­lem: Au­ton­o­mous driv­ing is il­le­gal on pub­lic roads in China, so Li may have been com­mit­ting a crime. There was, ad­mit­tedly, some­one in the driver’s seat—or so be­came Li’s de­fense when traf­fic po­lice an­nounced that the case was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tions of traf­fic law, once the video went vi­ral. Baidu had flirted with fire, and in the fol­low­ing days had to go into dam­age con­trol. (It’s still un­clear whether it’s il­le­gal to be driv­ing with­out hands phys­i­cally on the wheel).

But the search-engine gi­ant was far from alone in want­ing to jump the gun a lit­tle. Chi­nese com­pa­nies across the au­to­mo­tive and AI sec­tors are wait­ing with bated breath for the gov­ern­ment to le­gal­ize au­ton­o­mous driv­ing.

At present, it is still il­le­gal to carry out tests on roads with­out some­one sit­ting in the driver’s seat; the mo­ment that sit­u­a­tion changes, the race to mar­ket will truly be on. In the mean­time, in­dus­try lead­ers are com­ing up with in­no­va­tive strate­gies to gather self-driv­ing data with­out break­ing the law.

If the fu­ture of driv­ing is au­to­mated, then the com­pa­nies that dom­i­nate this mar­ket could be the multi­bil­lion-dol­lar giants of the fu­ture—so they need to get in po­si­tion, even if the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment isn’t par­tic­u­larly wel­com­ing yet.

Baidu is among the big­gest play­ers in this sec­tor, and is al­ready known for push­ing the en­ve­lope. The com­pany has re­peat­edly an­nounced its goal of hav­ing driver­less cars on the road by 2018, with mass pro­duc­tion be­gin­ning

as early as 2021. Li’s stunt may be the bold­est at­tempt yet to push for dom­i­nance in this sec­tor. Other com­pa­nies are tak­ing routes of their own to reach the same des­ti­na­tion.

Take UISEE (which stands for Utiliza­tion, In­dis­crim­i­nate, Safety, Ef­fi­ciency and En­vi­ron­ment), for ex­am­ple. Li Yu­jia, a part­ner and the CMO at UISEE, ex­plained to TWOC that the com­pany an­tic­i­pates things will change in the near fu­ture. “We are wait­ing on pol­icy. We now have two strate­gies: One is de­vel­op­ing our au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles for re­stricted en­vi­ron­ments, and the other is part­ner­ships with orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers (OEMS),” she said.

Both ap­proaches were shaped by the cur­rent reg­u­la­tory frame­work, if in dif­fer­ent ways. The OEMS that UISEE are work­ing with in­clude large com­pa­nies like MercedesBenz that have cars on the road and are in­volved in their own re­search as well (Ap­ple, and Google’s au­tonomousve­hi­cle sub­sidiary Waymo, have both re­cently down­shifted, shelv­ing plans to build ve­hi­cle from scratch to in­stead fo­cus on part­ner­ing with ex­ist­ing car man­u­fac­tur­ers to per­fect their soft­ware).

By co­op­er­at­ing with car man­u­fac­tur­ers, com­pa­nies like UISEE can gather in­for­ma­tion about road pat­terns and the be­hav­ior of hu­man driv­ers, and use that data in their tech­nol­ogy. This kind of co­op­er­a­tion is a com­mon fea­ture of the cur­rent au­ton­o­mous-driver mar­ket in China. On the other hand, the “re­stricted en­vi­ron­ments” ap­proach is an area where UISEE has al­ready ad­vanced ahead of the com­pe­ti­tion.

Re­stricted en­vi­ron­ments are typ­i­cally ar­eas like shop­ping malls and air­ports, which are not pub­lic prop­erty and have more pre­dictable pat­terns of traf­fic and pedes­trian be­hav­ior. UISEE cur­rently has an ex­per­i­men­tal project op­er­at­ing at a mall in Hangzhou. Par­tic­i­pants laden down with shop­ping bags can make use of an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle that re­sem­bles a golf cart with­out a driver; cus­tomers sim­ply in­put their li­cense plate on a tablet at­tached to the cart, which then chauf­feurs them back to their park­ing space. A sim­i­lar project is un­der­way at an air­port in Guangzhou.

Cru­cially, re­stricted en­vi­ron­ments are a way to get au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles in oper­a­tion and gath­er­ing data with­out put­ting them on pub­lic roads. Woe be­tides the com­pany that gets reg­u­la­tors off­side be­fore the on-road race even be­gins in earnest.

UISEE has only been in oper­a­tion since Fe­bru­ary 2016, but, ac­cord­ing to Li, has quickly de­vel­oped, thanks to the ex­per­tise of its staff. Founder Wu Gan­sha, a for­mer CTO at In­tel Labs, has sought out ad­vanced tal­ents out­side the usual startup staff pool of ea­ger grad­u­ates in their mid-20s, happy to be paid in stock op­tions and prom­ises. In­stead, UISEE’S tal­ent pool skews much more to­ward those in mid­dle age with ad­vanced de­grees—a byprod­uct of fo­cus­ing on ex­pe­ri­ence rather than par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cult of youth (or ex­ploita­tion) that per­me­ates much of the tech en­vi­ron­ment in both China and Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Chi­nese com­pa­nies are also look­ing abroad in or­der to gather data and de­velop the tech­nol­ogy where they can, carv­ing out other niches along the way. In June, Chi­nese startup Tusim­ple—which has of­fices in both Bei­jing and San Diego—pi­loted an au­ton­o­mous truck be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and Ari­zona. In Au­gust, Tusim­ple an­nounced plans to bring 100 en­gi­neer­ing jobs to Tuc­son, Ari­zona, within five years, giv­ing them of­fices at both ends of that route. Why Ari­zona? Once again, it’s about reg­u­la­tions.

Tusim­ple CTO Hou Xiaodi told the Tuc­son Sen­tinel that the US state is “su­per open-minded about au­ton­o­mous driv­ing.” Within months, the com­pany plans to have more au­ton­o­mous trucks run­ning back and forth, al­beit still with hu­man su­per­vi­sors tech­ni­cally be­hind the wheel. Within five years, they es­ti­mate will have 10 to 25 trucks run­ning be­tween des­ti­na­tions with­out hu­man as­sis­tance. “We want to show that we have mil­lions and mil­lions of test miles driven with­out any in­ci­dents be­fore ap­ply­ing to run the trucks with­out driv­ers,” Hou told the Sen­tinel.

Tusim­ple has snagged in­vest­ment from Chi­nese web gi­ant Sina, as well as US graph­ics chip­maker Nvidia, giv­ing the com­pany ac­cess to ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy from both sides of the Pa­cific.

As for whether or not that tech­nol­ogy will one day find its way onto Chi­nese roads, once again, the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment will have to pave the way.

A UISEE au­ton­o­mous cart at a carpark in Guangzhou

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