The Driverless Commute: Emergence of L4 autonomous driving in China

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The Chinese government is looking to develop the autonomous driving industry as a part of the country’s overall plan to reorient its economy towards a more high-tech industrial model that includes autonomous vehicles and related technology. In 2015, the State Council published a document entitled “Made in China 2025,” in which it detailed not only the reasoning behind this goal, but also the specific time frame in which they hope to achieve it. In this document, the State Council also names 10 specific industries in which the country plans to take the lead. Three of these industries—robotics, new-generation information technology and new-energy vehicles—point toward the autonomous vehicle industry.

Government policy

After the State Council released “Made in China 2025,” the wheels of government began turning to implement the goal. In 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) published the Plan for Development for Innovative Online Vehicles.

In the published plan, MIIT posited two sets of goals for the development of online vehicles:

  • By 2020, the MIIT plans to 1) obtain breakthroughs in merging different online vehicle-related industries; 2) attain large-scale implementation of autonomous vehicles in specialized scenarios; 3) achieve 30 percent of online vehicles; and 4) significantly improve intelligent road infrastructure.
  • After 2020, MIIT plans to 1) finish construction of technological innovation structure, regulatory structures, basic infrastructure, application services and safety infrastructure; 2) gradually realize large-scale commercial applications for high-tech 5G-V2X vehicles; and 3) achieve “man-car-road-cloud” synergy.

MIIT also stated that to implement the above goals, it plans to review all policies related to the development of online vehicles and provide supporting measures for all possible weak links.

The ripples of the State Council’s 2015 policy continue to emanate. In 2018, the MIIT, jointly with the Ministry of Public Security and the Department of Transportation, published the “Intelligent Network Automobile Road Test Management Standard,” which, as its name suggests, provides standards for setting up road test facilities for intelligent automobiles. Soon after, provinces and cities across China began setting up their own road-testing facilities, if they hadn’t already.

Driven by the initiatives led by the Chinese government and the huge potential in China’s market, many Chinese companies have long begun preparations to enter China’s autonomous vehicle market.

Baidu

Among these companies, Baidu is the biggest player. It’s open-source software development platform, Apollo, was launched in 2017. Not only has it gathered numerous partners, but Baidu is also leading the race on autonomous vehicle commercialization.

One of Baidu’s commercialized products is the Abolong L4 Autonomous Bus developed in collaboration with King Long. This small autonomous bus is now operating commercially in enclosed campuses across 24 Chinese cities. The first batch of 100 vehicles rolled off the production line in July of 2018. As of July 2019, the bus has already served more than 40,000 passengers.

Another Baidu product that has a bright future is the Hongqi E series, an L4 autonomous SUV that was launched in November 2018 in collaboration with Hongqi, one of China’s favorite national brands. As of July 2019, the first batch of the Honqi E series concluded production and will be sent to the city of Changsha for testing. Baidu projects that by the end of 2019, city residents of Changsha will be able to take driverless taxies.

Furthermore, on July 1, 2019, the Beijing Automotive Driving Test Management Joint-Committee issued Beijing’s first batch of L4 Level Automobile Road-Test driving licenses—five in total, all obtained by Baidu, making it the first, and so far only, company in the country to have obtained this license. The L4 license certificate is China’s number one open-road test level qualification certificate, with the highest technical level, highest standard, and most difficult testing scenarios. The obtainment of these five licenses has definitively positioned Baidu as the industry frontrunner.

Nipping at Baidu’s heels

However, other brands aren’t that far behind.

  • In terms of commercialization, Sinotruk (aka China National Heavy Duty Truck Group Co. Ltd., or CNHTC), which focuses on industrial vehicles, launched an L4 autonomous electronic truck in April 2018 and has begun trial runs in Tianjin Port, China. In April 2019, with the trucks already in operation an entire year, Sinotruk announced that it is expecting many orders in the coming months.
  • Yutong, the No. 1 bus brand in China, released its new L4 autonomous bus in March 2019.
  • Volkswagen announced plans to release its fully electric L4 autonomous driving vehicle (the I.D. ROOMZZ1 electric SUV) in China by 2021.
  • Geely Auto Group, China’s largest private automaker, announced plans to develop its own L4 autonomous driving system and its plans to mass produce its L4 vehicles by the 2022 Hangzhou Asian Games
  • AllRide.ai, a Chinese self-driving car-sharing firm, released its 5G AI autonomous vehicle business strategy with a focus on providing travel services as well.
  • Even Huawei is gearing up to enter into the market. In October 2018, the telecommunications company announced a collaboration with Audi to develop innovative L4 autonomous driving technology. And in January 2019, Huawei and Changan announced their collaboration in developing various technologies, including L4 autonomous driving, 5G connected vehicles, C-V2X and more.

Overall, China’s autonomous vehicle market is beginning to explode as governmental policies in furtherance of the State Council’s 2015 document, and the government’s support of driverless technology generally, continue to propel the development of the market. The party has just begun.

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