Welcome again to The Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to full autonomy.
1. Clipping their heels
Driving in China is a miserable, treacherous proposition. With more than 700 traffic-related deaths each day and traffic jams denser even than some communities (no, that photograph isn’t a parking lot, but instead a traffic jam that lasted 11 days), it’s not surprising that Chinese motorists are among the most eager in the world for the deployment of autonomous technology.
But self-driving vehicles function best (and most safely) in conditions of limited variables—that is to say, not the typical Chinese road.
Undeterred, Beijing has pursued a strategy to make China the global driverless leader by normalizing and easing federal and local testing protocols and by strategically incentivizing development by private industry. It’s working, and most experts agree that China is fast on the heels of the United States, where political inertia has stalled the consideration of a comprehensive regulatory regime.
Eager to own the new artificial intelligence age, the line between business and government has blurred, and billions of dollars are flowing between the two to underwrite aggressive research programs. Beijing also appreciates its value to global automakers—it’s the largest car market in the world—and has established protectionist rules that foreign car outfits must partner with local software firms if they wish to test in China.
In spite of these rules, Germany’s Big Three, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which are also among the world’s largest automakers, have “begun quietly testing autonomous vehicles in China,” according to the Financial Times. More:
“To conduct trials, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have all agreed to use Chinese mapping and data providers, setting aside their existing international systems in order to gain a foothold in the nascent technology being deployed in the world’s largest car market. …
“Carmakers all over the world are developing self-driving systems, partnering with an array of technology businesses, but may be forced to make concessions to operate in China, a market where some technology businesses such as Google face restrictions.”
Exit question: Does China’s form of government, protectionist posture and already-robust technology market mean it will eclipse the US in the driverless race? Email us your thoughts; we’ll feature them here.
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2. Counter point: Nope.
Whatever the practical consequence of the United States’ inability to forge comprehensive, federal rules to regulate (and encourage) the safe development and deployment of autonomous vehicles, the nation still enjoys privileged incumbency: Silicon Valley remains the world’s uncontested technology leader.
But is that enough to stay ahead of its global rivals? If the direction of flow of talent and money is any indication, the answer may be yes. Bloomberg reports:
“China’s homegrown search giant, much like its U.S. counterpart, has a division focused entirely on driverless vehicles. And just like its rival, Google-born Waymo, both efforts are based in Silicon Valley.
“It’s not only Baidu with a toehold in Northern California. China’s self-driving startups are sprouting major R&D outposts 6,000 miles from Beijing. China’s congested megacities may have a need for self-driving cars, but the expertise is elsewhere.
“Just ask Pony.ai founders James Peng and Tiancheng Lou. When they decided over a drink in Beijing three years ago that it was time to leave Baidu’s self-driving car unit, the plan was always to start in California. ‘Silicon Valley is definitely the place to be,’ Peng said in an interview. ‘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.'”
3. What’s past is prologue, horseless carriage edition
It was in September 1899 that Henry H. Bliss, a 66-year-old New York real estate developer, stepped from a street car on Central Park West and was fatally struck by a passing taxicab, becoming the world’s first recorded casualty of the rise of horseless carriages.
The cab driver was arrested and charged with manslaughter, before being acquitted by a jury that found neither malice nor negligence.
One newspaper wrote of the incident that “the automobile had tasted blood.”
4. The Auto(nomous) Bahn
- What could go wrong? A Southwest Florida town says it’s the world’s first municipality to test autonomous school buses.
- Visitors to Sydney Olympic Park will be able to ride an autonomous shuttle beginning next week after the government of New South Wales successfully completed phase one of its pilot.
- Ridesharing giant Lyft unveiled a new initiative this week to encourage drivers to give up their cars for a month in exchange for service credits or credits to bike-share or use public transportation.
- A new study by AAA found widespread (and unsafe) misconceptions about the capabilities of existing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).
5. Know everything AV, all the time
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