Autonomous service vehicles gaining ground in China

Updated 28 Jan 2019


A driverless car by Baidu Apollo is seen at the 2018 International Intelligent Transportation Industry Expo in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province in December 2018.—AFP/File
A driverless car by Baidu Apollo is seen at the 2018 International Intelligent Transportation Industry Expo in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province in December 2018.—AFP/File

BEIJING: Large-scale commercial use of self-driving technologies could become a reality sooner than expected, as tech companies are promoting their use in public service sectors.

Last year, Chinese internet search giant Baidu Inc launched seven autonomous urban maintenance vehicles in partnership with Beijing Environmental Equipment Co, a subsidiary of Beijing Environmental Hygiene Group.

“By leveraging our capabilities in autonomous driving and AI technologies, we can develop comprehensive solutions that will greatly improve the efficiency of cities,” said Baidu’s chairman and chief executive Robin Li. He added the year of 2018 marked the first year of commercialisation for autonomous driving.

Based on Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system, the seven vehicles are designed to fulfil various indoor and outdoor tasks, such as sweeping roads or public areas, and collecting and transporting garbage.

The vehicles will be put to work in shopping malls, high-speed rail stations, airports, venues, squares, industrial parks, pedestrian roads and community spaces.

Xue Zhendong, deputy general manager of Beijing Environmental Equipment Co, said: “These autonomous vehicles are powered by various technologies, including computer vision, image recognition, precise positioning and cloud computing, to increase cleaning efficiency.”

The move marks another step by Beijing-based Baidu in applying its autonomous driving technologies to solve real-life problems. The company plans to launch a fleet of 100 robo-taxis in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, on 210 kilometres of city roads.

It will be China’s first autonomous taxi fleet managed by Baidu’s V2X system, which integrates smart vehicles and intelligent road infrastructure for the safe deployment of autonomous cars.

In July, Baidu announced it had launched volume production of the nation’s first fully autonomous minibus, the Apolong, in partnership with King Long.

It intends to ship the buses to Japan early this year, in cooperation with SB Drive, the autonomous driving-focused subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank Group. The fleets will help to ferry workers to power plants and elderly people around their communities.

The Apolong is outfitted with Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system and seats 14 people. It can complete self-driving operations such as avoiding obstacles, swerving and transhipment.

The buses will initially offer last-mile travel services at tourist hot spots, airports and other enclosed areas. It is set to enter commercial operation in Beijing, Shenzhen, Xiongan New Area, Wuhan, and Pingtan in Fujian province, among other regions, Baidu said.

The company’s Apolong manufacturing facility in Xiamen, Fujian province, has achieved a production volume of 100 units as of July, a milestone that Li said shows autonomous driving is making great strides.

In all, the country has now issued 101 licence plates for self-driving vehicles owned by 32 companies across 14 cities, according to China Automotive Information Net. Baidu has obtained the most, with more than 50 plates.

Zeng Zhiling, managing director of LMC Automotive Consulting Co, said he is bullish on the application of self-driving technologies in public service sectors, as bus operating routes are relatively fixed, and personal privacy issues related to intelligent connected vehicles are less of a concern on mass transit.

Traditional car manufacturers are also ramping up efforts to promote the large-scale commercialization of self-driving technologies.

SAIC Motor Corp Ltd has signed a deal with Intel Corp to develop self-driving cars.

BYD is working on self-driving technologies itself, as well as in cooperation with Baidu. Tencent Holdings Ltd received its first licence from the Shenzhen government in May to test intelligent connected vehicles on designated roads.

The authorities forecast that vehicles with some degree of autonomous functionality will account for half the new vehicles sold in the nation by 2020

Su Kuifeng, head of Tencent’s automotive driving lab, said the licence indicates the Shenzhen transportation authority’s recognition of the company’s self-driving technology.

China’s autonomous driving is gaining momentum as the government has high hopes for the sector.

The authorities forecast that vehicles with some degree of autonomous functionality will account for half the new vehicles sold in the nation by 2020, according to a guideline released by the National Development and Reform Commission.

To ensure the rapid development of autonomous vehicles, the Chinese authorities have been expediting such guidelines and related regulations.

Local authorities in Beijing released the country’s first guideline on road tests of autonomous vehicles in December 2017, and unveiled a closed testing ground in February last year.

On March 1, authorities in Shanghai issued the country’s first road test licences to two smart carmakers, SAIC Motor Corp and electric vehicle start-up Nio.

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 commercialising 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.

Shanghai has issued seven license plates for five companies to conduct self-driving road tests, namely SAIC, Nio, BMW, TuSimple and Momenta. Two of the five companies have been given a plate for testing autonomous driving trucks.

Apart from Beijing and Shanghai, extensive testing is taking place in 14 cities, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, and Chongqing.

According to consultancy Roland Berger, China is accelerating its development of autonomous driving and is expected to become the leader in the technology, which is seen as key to the future of the automotive industry.

However, industry analysts said there is a long way to go before fully autonomous cars are integrated into people’s daily lives.

“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 of LMC Automotive Consulting.

—China Daily/ANN

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 28th, 2019