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Audi, Daimler & BMW in China: The autonomous tech global exchange

Audi: the latest German carmaker to be granted permission to test on Chinese soil (Photo: Audi)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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It’s foreign exchange time for the world’s biggest market players while Potsdam gets autonomous technology on track and the Swedish giant unveils a new mobility concept (and no, it’s not Volvo): read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

Talking about which nation is winning the automated driving race is becoming somewhat meaningless. Because as it turns out, realizing the potential of automated driving is essentially a global collaboration. And the key to successful collaboration is each player bringing a unique strength to the table. Two stories last week captured this perfectly.    

First, the Financial Times (subscription required) reported that German carmakers – namely Audi, Mercedes and BMW – have quietly began conducting autonomous driving trials in China. Now it’s no secret that the ‘big three’ were heading East to test in local conditions in what is the world’s biggest car market by sales. BMW was first to be granted permission to test in Shanghai in May, followed by Daimler in Beijing in July and now Audi in Wuxi this month. If they are to launch their vehicles there, familiarization is a must. And they are welcomed with open arms. After all, China wants to become a world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030 and is determined to do whatever it takes to pave the way for automated and connected vehicles. But there’s a catch: recent regulation stipulates that foreign carmakers must collaborate with local companies when it comes to surveying and mapping due to national security concerns – the same reason that foreign restrictions apply to data gathering and storage via cameras. Yet still, an acceptable concession for positioning themselves in this giant market.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported on the exodus of homegrown Chinese talent to the startup haven and center of the AD universe that is Silicon Valley. It turns out that to meet this aforementioned goal of AI world dominance, China’s biggest tech giants as well as some promising startups need Silicon Valley’s expertise. Baidu set up an A.I. and self-driving software camp in Sunnyvale in 2014 and more and more startups are following suit. One is Pony.ai, whose founder James Peng says “Silicon Valley is definitely the place to be…that's where all the talent is. China has a lot of raw talent, but with hardcore artificial intelligence, it takes years to build up. China has work to do.”

So, Germany has the cars and the rich heritage of automotive expertise, China has the scale and the motivation to welcome testing and the US has the AI expertise. Like I said, a true global effort.

The Potsdam Tram

Siemens Mobility was at the Innotrans rail trade show in Berlin last week showing off the world’s first autonomous tram. The trams have spent a year trialing operations (albeit without passengers) on a 4-mile stretch of the German city’s tram network. Fully equipped with lidars, radars, cameras, and machine-learning software, the autonomous vehicles are able to interact with cars and pedestrians as required. Naturally, that is much less than “free-range” vehicles have to deal with: “The complexity is certainly a little lower,” says Christoph Klaes, who leads Siemens Mobility's light-rail vehicle section. A little lower? You can say that again.

Did you hear about the autonomous Potsdam tram? (Photo: Siemens Mobility)

Right now, the trams pretty much have to manage velocity: stop, go and how fast. But would you really reduce a human tram driver’s job to that? Probably not. There’s more to it – and that’s what the next phase is all about: “The next level we are looking at right now is to try to get close to the behavior an experienced driver would have,” Klaes says. For example, if someone is walking toward the tracks, drivers don’t just slam the brakes. They stop accelerating; survey the situation and wait.

While of course not as complex, this type of autonomous mobility still presents challenges. And only when the public sees autonomy overcome the simple will they trust it to overcome the complex.  

Ikea’s flat-pack mobility

From one Swedish giant’s future mobility concept to another: IKEA (yes, the furniture company) has just revealed its version of the self-driving future.

The “space on wheels” concept is based on the principle that the world will come to you – in the form of driverless pods under various guises. Everything from shopping, going for a coffee to working or going to the doctor will be hailed via an app. It’s the brainchild of Ikea's innovation studio “Space 10” in collaboration with Foam Studio. Seven space-on-wheels concepts have been unveiled so far: check them out here.

Ikea’s Space 10: more quaint than Volvo’s innovation space (Photo: Ikea Space 10)

It’s quirky; it’s bizarre because of where it has come from but it’s nothing really new. But then, does it claim to be? Often these “lighthearted” looks into the future are just what we need. Every little helps in raising awareness – and most importantly trust – surrounding driverless technology.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),                         

René Tellers

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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