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China: The world’s biggest market for driverless cars is pushing its industry to the limit

Shanghai: could this megacity be a precursor for autonomous driving? (Photo: Fotolia / chungking)

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Although consumer interest is high, autonomous driving is progressing slowly in China. Newcomers such as Faraday Future or Nio may have great ambitions, but their opportunities remain limited. And volume producers currently have more pressing tasks to take care of. Furthermore, some severe infrastructural hurdles complicate improvements.

February 23, 2017 is not a date that William Li will easily forget. After months of preparation and a few problematic issues in the run-up to the event, his electric-powered Nio EP9 set a new speed record for an autonomous vehicle at the Formula 1 circuit in Austin, Texas. The 1000 KW car recorded a lap time of 2:40:33 minutes and a top speed of 160 mph (260 km/h) – something no other vehicle has achieved before.

Autonomous driving also brings up noteworthy memories for Nick Sampson. In January 2017, during CES in Las Vegas, the Senior Vice President of Product Research & Development at start-up Faraday Future – the self-proclaimed Tesla competitor – unveiled the FF91 as its first production vehicle. Although the luxury liner first shone on the main stage with its flashy driving functions, as the FF91 geared up for a driverless fanfare ending, the electronics played an embarrassing trick on the developers and the autopilot decided to quit.  

China aims for the driverless pole position

Whilst the record lap in Texas and the breakdown in Nevada took place in the U.S., the roots of both can be found on the other side of the car world. Both Nio and Faraday Future are brands from China and evidence of a claim that could be dangerous to established car manufacturers: the Chinese don’t only want to be at the forefront of development when it comes to e-mobility, but also with autonomous driving – and they are willing to turn the world of horse power upside down.  

The Nio EP9 set a speed record in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Nio)

And yet, the distance between dream and reality is bigger in China than in the rest of the world. This is because, so far, those who are working on removing the driver are not the half-established volume manufacturers and their modern subsidiary brands, such as Volvo’s sister Lynk & Co, the come-back Borgward or the Cherry spin-off Qoros. Rather it is start-ups such as Faraday Future and its Chinese sister brand LeSee, or even Nio, that want to reinvent driving alongside their engines. However, it seems they already have enough to do regarding the financing of their companies and the construction of their plants, and have therefore so far done little more than launch a few PR campaigns.  

While the newcomers in China are still in the teething phase, the more-established manufacturers are clearly lacking in ambition and experience when it comes to autonomous driving. From time to time, a few prototypes with the usual sensors on the roof do appear at trade fairs such as the Shanghai Auto Show. However, in practice, corporations such as Cherry, Geely and BYD are too busy satisfying a never-ending demand for affordable vehicles for the masses, as well as meeting state requirements for electric driving, to be able to also take care of the gradual replacement of drivers.

OPEN CONSUMERS, INSUFFICIENT MAPS

At the same time, consumers in China are more open to the idea than in other places. For example, in a representative survey in six countries, 74 per cent of Chinese respondents were in favor of a swift introduction of automated driving in their country. In the U.S. it was only 31 percent and in Germany it was 33.

The government is also pushing forward. In December 2016 they published a 450-page position paper that sets a strict schedule for highly assisted and autonomous driving. Between 2021 and 2025, politicians want to see a large presence of the technology on the street and for it to be the norm five years after that.

The FF 91 is Faraday Future's first production vehicle. (Photo: Faraday Future)

What is still fundamentally lacking, in addition to the commitment of manufacturers, is detailed maps. Unlike the rest of the civilized world, China is far from being fully digitalized, not to mention from having maps in suitable resolutions or updates in real-time – both of which are required for autonomous driving. This is something that won’t be improved by the hurdles imposed by the government. As digital maps are of strategic importance to China, they can only be created by state companies. Furthermore, they may only come into the market with a certain distortion.

Despite this, players from the West are looking for partners in the East in order to achieve their goals. The HERE consortium, for example, has sold ten percent of its shares to state-licensed NavInfo, internet group Tencent and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC. "It makes it easier for us to enter the Chinese market," says BMW CEO Harald Krüger. On the fringes of the Shanghai Auto Show, Stuttgart-based supplier Bosch agreed to collaborate with the Chinese internet group Baidu and map-providers AutoNavi and NavInfo. Together, the four partners are working on a way to use the information from radar and video sensors in vehicles to create and update maps. "Without highly accurate maps, we will not be able to drive in an automated way – not in China, nor anywhere else in the world," says Bosch Manager Rolf Bulander.

Chaotic traffic – a major challenge

At least, even if slowly, local manufacturers are now beginning to address the subject. When Geely opens a new test track alongside its new development center in Hangzhou in the coming months, more than 6,500 engineers from the research center will be able to test autonomous vehicles there. "We travelled across the country for over a year to examine the most critical scenarios for the assistance systems, which we can now replicate on our site," says Zhengnan Hu, manager in Geely’s R&D center, who can’t help but sigh when he thinks about the situation. And not without good reason: there are more than a dozen different types of traffic light in China alone. Not to mention the many different types of road users.

International OEMs like Audi are testing driverless cars in China. (Photo: Audi)

"Millions of electric scooters, often without lights or interest in traffic rules, vans, trucks, buses, cars – in all performance classes – and between them, pedestrians, all sharing the same roads, which are wider and more congested than those in the rest of the world," is how he describes the chaos, which he wants to replicate and solve with more than 180 scenarios. The task is huge, but this also makes the prospect even more tempting: "If we can drive autonomously in such a chaotic environment, we can do it anywhere."

However, it is not only the chaotic traffic conditions in Shanghai or Beijing, nor the many more in the less-westernized metropolises in China, that are putting the brakes on autonomous driving. Even with the appropriate maps, Mao's heirs might not be much further on. The delayed development in fact has a completely different reason: a lack of demand from affluent customers. From the middle-class upwards, the Chinese are already letting go of the steering wheel – and traditionally handing it over to a chauffeur.

Can China meet the expectations to become the world's biggest driverless car nation? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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