Racing to the self-driving car

By Yu Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-5 20:08:01

Newcomers joining in to develop autonomous vehicles

In recent years, more and more newcomers, especially tech companies, have been joining traditional automakers in the quest to develop the semi- or fully autonomous vehicle, better known as the self-driving car. Google Inc has been working on self-driving car technology since 2009. And Chinese Internet giant Baidu Inc believes its own self-driving car technology has kept up with tech peers in core areas such as sensors or robotic controls. Although many experts and automakers see self-driving car technology as the future of the auto industry, there will also be many obstacles to overcome along the way.

A self-driving SUV travels through the campus of Chengdu University of Information Technology in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, on December 30, 2015. Over the last few years, many domestic companies, such as Baidu Inc, have joined the quest to develop self-driving vehicles in China. Photo: CFP

The race to create the car of the future is getting crowded.

Besides Google Inc, Inc and Microsoft Corp are reportedly working on self-driving cars. The two companies are in talks to supply cloud computing services to the digital mapping business HERE, owned by a group of German carmakers developing self-driving cars, Reuters reported on Friday.

International automakers including Ford Motor Co, Nissan Motor Co, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors Inc have announced plans to introduce fully autonomous vehicles by 2020, with some other automakers expecting to release them by 2025, according to a Moody's report dated March 29.

Chinese tech giants and automakers are also accelerating development of their own self-driving car technology. In December 2015, Baidu Inc announced its self-driving car was the first in China to successfully complete a rigorous, fully autonomous series of tests under a variety of road conditions. Many domestic automakers, such as Changan Automobile (Group) Co and BAIC Motor, are also planning to unveil self-driving car models.

Building the best tech

Chinese automakers and tech giants have all realized the importance of developing self-driving technology. Baidu, for instance, said on March 30 that it has invested tens of billions of yuan in self-driving technology.

Many Chinese companies, including Baidu and Alibaba Group Holding, have opened offices in Silicon Valley in the US to help them keep up with the latest technology, said Li Jun, PwC's Central China corporate tax practice leader, who specializes in a broad range of industries including technology and automobiles.

"But it's still hard to judge whose self-driving technology is the best. Only tests with high credibility can make such judgement," Li told the Global Times on March 31.

Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for Baidu, has full confidence in Baidu's technology.

"Baidu's technology in the area doesn't lag that of international companies in any core areas such as sensors or robotic controls," Kuo told the Global Times via e-mail on March 31.

"We believe that in some areas such as artificial intelligence (AI)-based computer vision, we are at the leading edge of autonomous driving technology," he noted.

Although overseas companies have more advanced technology in general, self-driving technology services providers in China have a better understanding of road conditions, said Li Xiang, who founded the automotive website and is an investor in NextEV, an electric car maker.

Li Xiang believes Chinese self-driving technology companies will be major providers in the domestic market.

Safety concerns

On February 14, Google reported a minor traffic accident in which one of its self-driving cars struck a city bus in February in Silicon Valley.

"We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn't moved there wouldn't have been a collision," Google said in its monthly report in February about its self-driving car project.

Generally, AI makes for a much better driver than a human being, said Li Jun from PwC, noting that although more measures need to be adopted to prevent accidents, AI technology will mature as time goes on.

"For instance, automatic driving technology can kick in when a car gets into heavy traffic, which can reduce the frequency of traffic accidents," Li Xiang said, also noting that autonomous driving technology costs automakers less than $1,000, which is relatively low.

"Compared with full self-driving technology, I see a good future for autonomous driving technology over the next few years," Li Xiang told the Global Times on March 31.

Obstacles on the road

Self-driving technology developers still face many problems such as high costs and how to upgrade software systems, though they are all solvable, Li Xiang said.

Self-driving cars have to be able to sense their surroundings so they can decide how to safely maneuver on the road. That makes the type of sensors that developers use particularly important.

For instance, LIDAR (light-sensing radar) sensors, which Google uses in its self-driving car prototype, cost as much as $80,000, according to a report by US-based tech information provider Tech Insider in December 2015.

Besides the high costs, there are many other factors that will decide whether the technology will be widely used in the future.

"The related transportation laws and regulations still need to be completed in China," Li Jun said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the US's auto safety regulator, said the artificial intelligence system piloting Google's self-driving car could be considered a driver under federal law, Reuters reported on February.

The regulator's statement was a step toward winning approval to get  autonomous vehicles on the roads legally.

In the e-mail, Baidu's Kuo pointed out that China's road infrastructure can't currently accommodate autonomous vehicles.

"They would have trouble, for instance, understanding the hand gestures of traffic cops or construction workers, would have difficulty understanding instructions shouted through a bullhorn or megaphone, would have difficulty distinguishing quickly between, say, a soft object like a mattress falling off the back of a truck or a hard object," he said.

AI has become a trend that will change people's driving habits, Li Jun said, noting that it's very hard for an individual company to dominate the competitive market.

Self-driving technology is expected to be tested in some areas during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, according to a report by domestic news website on Friday.

About a decade from now, the total number of private vehicles in Beijing will fall to 1 million, said Wu Gansha, former director of the Intel China Research Center, according to a report on the news website on March 31. By that time, however, Beijing will have about 2 million self-driving taxies on the road.

That prediction could be optimistic. It will still be several decades before self-driving cars are widely adopted, according to the Moody's report.

"In our projection, a majority of cars could be self-driving around 2045, and are likely to become nearly universal about 2055," the report said.

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