As the taxi drove itself through Shenzhen’s bustling streets, Bill Russo marveled from the passenger seat. Be it a scooter making a U-turn in front of the robotaxi, or a nearby driver who decided to go straight instead of following the legal left or right turns marked on the road, there was no shortage of obstacles for the self-driving car.
Granted, there was a flesh-and-blood driver behind the wheel of the vehicle, which is part of startup AutoX’s autonomous car pilot program that publicly launched in China mid-August, but he would only take control in an emergency. However, Russo, who is the chairman of the Automotive Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, says AutoX’s AI was so effective that the emergency driver “never had to intervene” during the 70-minute ride. That level of sophistication is needed for companies such as AutoX and Didi, the latter being the ride-hailing company that recently launched a competing AV pilot program in China. That’s because, according to Russo, “Companies in China . . . are trying to do the black diamond, to use a skiing metaphor, and not a bunny hill.”
Such companies could gather even more momentum thanks to a slew of infrastructure investment that the Chinese government announced earlier this year. That includes a 62-mile expressway connecting Beijing and neighboring Xiong’an that has several lanes dedicated to autonomous cars and was built by driverless construction vehicles. The paving was completed in mid-August, and the road will officially open in 2021.
Russo, who is also the founder and CEO of the consulting company Automobility, says government funding is also focused on boosting China’s 5G infrastructure. The goal is to “allow for high-speed communication between autonomous vehicles and the network, which has eyes in the sky and helps the car see all around itself,” he says.
Companies in China . . . are trying to do the black diamond, to use a skiing metaphor, and not a bunny hill.”
Russo explains that AutoX and Didi are both aiming to demonstrate by 2023 that the technology is safe and viable in densely populated areas. It’s a huge technical challenge, one that major American players such as Waymo (from Google), Cruise, Argo.ai, and Zoox (acquired by Amazon) have yet to master. Russo says that some of those companies are running pilots in cities such as San Francisco, with a focus on low-density road testing, often in defined, “geofenced” areas. AutoX—which is headquartered in Hong Kong and recently opened an R&D center in Shenzhen—also has a strong stateside presence with a team of over 100 R&D engineers. It is just the second company to receive a California Driverless Permit for robotaxis at speeds up to 45 mph, after Waymo.
Regardless, Russo says, “Companies in China are much more willing to take the experimental approach to solving problems in a live setting, not in a controlled setting” that is geofenced.
Surprisingly enough, these plans have not been completely stifled by COVID-19. On the contrary, a spokesperson for AutoX says the “pandemic has made people in China realize that robotaxis and robo-delivery are much safer ways of transportation for people and goods. Safety does not only mean less traffic accidents but also less risk of contact and infection.”
But the pilot programs for AutoX and Didi have also moved forward because of the Chinese government’s support. In a statement to Fast Company, a Didi spokesperson said that the mainstream deployment of self-driving cars “will not only depend on the technology and hardware development but also the policy and regulatory environment.”
Unlike the U.S. government, Chinese state officials claim that they prefer to remedy the country’s pandemic-stricken economy with targeted investments in emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles and 5G rather than major stimulus spending, according to a recent state media report.
However, Tu Le, the managing director at the Sino Auto Insights consulting firm, points out that these investments are more about helping China’s technology sector stay competitive. “These investments were as much to make sure the AV development stayed on track and didn’t get set back too much because of COVID-19,” he says. “These investments won’t necessarily accelerate the development as much as it will help not slow it down any further. A ton of data still needs to be collected, and that’s only going to happen with more pilot vehicles on the roads.” He adds that the Chinese government’s new tech infrastructure investments may be meant to prevent supply disruptions due to diplomatic friction with the U.S.
Despite these efforts, a dramatic change in AV development may not be underway, according to Martin Ford, a futurist and the author of Rise of the Robots and Architects of Intelligence. While Ford believes the Chinese government’s investments will majorly impact AV within the country, he is uncertain that they will supercharge China’s advantage against the U.S. That’s because America remains competitive with companies such as Waymo, which began testing autonomous trucks in Texas in late August.
That being said, China’s decision to support emerging technology with government funding is something Ford believes the U.S. should be thinking about as well. “China clearly has an effective national strategy that makes artificial intelligence a priority, and the government invests far more than the United States,” he says. “This is something that I think the U.S. needs to take seriously.”
Larry Mullin is a reporter based in Beijing.