Autonomous vehicles gaining more ground
A future of autonomous driving continues to become reality in China, as local authorities and private firms work together to test the potentially life-changing technology with over 100 number plates handed out for public road tests.
In all, the country has now issued 101 license plates for self-driving vehicles owned by 32 companies across 14 cities, with Chinese internet search giant Baidu Inc obtaining the most with more than 50 plates, according to China Automotive Information Net.
Beijing has issued more licenses for the public road testing of selfdriving cars than any other city, topping the list with 56, followed by Chongqing (11) and Shanghai (7).
According to the Beijing Innovation Center for Mobility Intelligent, a service provider of road tests for autonomous vehicles, the Beijing government has issued license plates to seven companies, and as of November 2018, self-driving vehicles have traveled 125,600 kilometers on test roads around the city.
For the tests, Beijing has marked out 44 roads, totaling 123 kilometers, for autonomous car testing. One in Yizhuang, a southern suburb in Beijing, is 74.4 kilometers long, making it the longest among all Chinese cities.
Local authorities in Beijing released the country’s first guideline on road tests of autonomous vehicles in December 2017, followed by a closed testing ground for autonomous cars in February 2018.
On March 1, authorities in Shanghai then issued the country’s first road test licenses to two smart carmakers, SAIC Motor Corp Ltd and electric vehicle startup Nio Auto.
Baidu also obtained its license to test its self-driving cars on open roads in Beijing in March, becoming the first enterprise to conduct road tests in designated zones in the capital.
Today, Shanghai has 37.2 kilometers of roads allowing for the testing of self-driving vehicles, made up of urban main roads, urban secondary trunk roads, and industrial parks.
The city has issued seven license plates to five companies — SAIC, Nio, BMW, TuSimple and Momenta — to conduct self-driving road tests. The last two firms will use their plates to test autonomous trucks.
Zhuang Wenwei, chairman of Shanghai International Automobile City, said more than 90 enterprises, including automakers and companies engaged in intelligent network driving systems, are applying for road tests. More are expected to gain their licenses this year.
According to the Shanghai Municipal Economic and Information Commission, road tests for intelligent network vehicles exceeded 15,000 km by the end of September. Despite the thousands of hours of non-human driving, no traffic accidents or interference with road transportation occurred during the tests, the commission said.
“More tests are needed before such vehicles can reach mass production and enter large-scale commercial application because of widespread safety concerns,” said Zeng Zhiling, managing director of LMC Automotive Consulting Co.
Officials have high hopes for the market. China expects vehicles with some autonomous functions to account for half of new vehicles sold in the nation by 2020, according to a guideline released by the National Development and Reform Commission.
In April, the nation released a national guideline on road tests for self-driving vehicles, as part of a broader drive to accelerate the development of the technology and gain the advantage in commercializing such vehicles.
The regulation allows local authorities to evaluate local conditions and arrange road tests for autonomous vehicles. It states that the test vehicles should be passenger or commercial automobiles, not low-speed vehicles or motorcycles.
Besides Beijing and Shanghai, extensive testing is also taking place in a total of 14 other cities around China, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, Wuhan in Hubei province, and Chongqing, where seven automakers are testing on 12.5 kilometers of public roads.
However, experts have warned firms to go cautiously, especially when it comes to people’s safety.
“Companies should invest and establish more testing sites that imitate different traffic scenarios rather than testing their vehicles on urban roads prematurely,” said Lin Jian, a senior engineer in the automobile engineering department at Tsinghua University.
Zhao Xiang, an analyst with internet consultancy Analysys, said selfdriving technology is still facing a number of obstacles before being rolled out for commercial use.
She said technological hurdles include the accuracy of digital maps and the high cost of laser sensors used in the self-driving systems.
China will step up its efforts this year to expand overseas companies’ access to the country’s telecom and internet market, with more businesses open to overseas capital, amid the ongoing push to further drive forward opening-up, analysts said.
The comments came after official data showed that 121 overseas companies have been approved to engage in businesses including running data centers, telecoms and information processing services in China by the end of 2018, marking year-on-year growth of 39 percent.
Xiang Ligang, CEO of industry website Cctime, said since the start of China’s reform and opening-up policy, big strides have been made to open the telecom and information sector to overseas investors, giving overseas companies equal treatment.
“With China pledging to further its push to lure overseas investment, greater access to the country’s giant pool of netizens and telecom service users can be expected,” Xiang said.
As of 2018, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the country’s top industry regulator, has greenlit 86 overseas companies to engage in telecom-related services, and 35 companies have been approved by the Shanghai Communications Administration.
Overseas investments are most interested in offering services including online data processing and transaction processing, information services, and domestic call center businesses, said the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government think tank, in a report.
The above three businesses, listed in order of popularity, accounted for 81 percent of all business licenses the two regulators have given.
Among the overseas companies the MIIT have approved, Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong province are the top three destinations for overseas telecom investment, with the number of registered overseas companies hitting 54, 25, and 17 in each respectively, the report added.
Fu Liang, an independent telecom analyst who has been following the sector for 10 years, said more overseas investors are likely to head to second-tier, even third-tier cities, to explore business opportunities, given the telecom network now covers almost every village in China.
“Also, the scope of businesses open to overseas companies will grow wider, which can help overseas companies better understand the Chinese market, fully access it, and compete with local rivals on an equal playing field,” Fu added.
One example of this is when overseas companies were allowed to become virtual network operators in China last year, as part of the government’s attempts to provide competition in the multibillion-dollar telecom industry.
According to the rule, overseas investors can apply to resell telecom services as own-brand mobile phone services. The hope for consumers is that the privately run companies could offer discounts and challenge a market currently dominated by three big State-owned enterprises.
When it comes to sources of funding, the report by CAITC said over half of the 121 approved companies in the Chinese telecom industry are backed by Hong Kong investors, followed by investors from the United States and Japan. Together, the three account for 75 percent of all the market’s capital.
More importantly, 37 companies, or about 30 percent of all approved companies’ are solely funded by overseas capital, with seven more at least half funded by overseas investors.
“China is removing the cap on overseas ownership of joint ventures in the country. The progress has already been seen in the automobile sector. The telecoms industry is highly likely to be the next one to benefit from the change,” Fu added.
In 2018, China removed overseas ownership caps on new energy vehicle ventures, and it is set to scrap ownership caps on commercial car producers in 2020, and on passenger car producers starting in 2022.
Frank Meng, chairman of Qualcomm China, the local branch of the United States-based chip giant, said in an earlier interview that he is quite amazed by what China has done in the last 40 years of reform and opening-up.
“Qualcomm has been in China for over two decades, and China has long become one of the most important regions for us,” Meng said.
“We are proud that our unique ‘Invent — Share — Collaborate’ business model has brought together the ecosystems of China and the US to create a tremendous success between the two countries. Over the years, our partnerships in China have been expanded across the entire ecosystem,” he added.