Despite the fatal accident involving Uber’s self-driving car in Arizona this week, the United States remains far ahead of China in regulating and commercializing autonomous driving vehicles.
But China, the world’s largest market for new vehicles, is striving to catch up.
The most significant progress China has made this year is instituting a regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles.
Since 2016, the U.S. has at least had guidelines for such vehicles: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Federal Automated Vehicle Policy.
China didn’t have such rules until recently.
As a result, when Robin Li, CEO of Chinese technology giant Baidu Inc., test drove a driverless car fitted with the company’s self-driving technologies on public roads in Beijing in July, he was investigated by local police for possible violation of the city’s traffic rules.
The probe didn’t lead to any fine or penalty because the city’s traffic regulator had no rules to go by on self-driving vehicles.
But Li would have no worries about running into regulatory trouble when testing Baidu’s automated cars next time.
The central Chinese government hasn’t formulated rules on automated vehicles. But city governments across the country have moved to plug the regulatory hole.
In December, Beijing led domestic cities in promulgating rules for test drives of such vehicles. This month, Baidu became one of the first local companies to be granted license plates to test a self-driving vehicle fleet on designated local roads.
This month, Shanghai also enacted rules for testing autonomous vehicles. Two local companies, state-owned SAIC Motor Corp. and electric vehicle startup Nio, have obtained license plates to test self-driving vehicles on a 5.6-kilometer (3.5-mile) section of a road in the city’s suburban Jiading district.
Other major Chinese cities are also drafting regulations and designating local roads to evaluate automated vehicles.
Last week, the south China municipality of Chongqing released rules for such vehicles. The south China city of Shenzhen is soliciting public comments on regulations it has drafted for autonomous vehicles.
Chinese automakers lag behind their American peers in readying their self-driving vehicles for production.
A year after building test vehicles to develop self-driving technology, General Motors disclosed this month plans to assemble production versions of the Cruise AV at its Orion Township assembly plant in Michigan.
The Cruise AV, due to arrive in the market in 2019, can operate on its own with no driver, steering wheel, pedals or manual controls, GM says.
But Chinese companies are starting to catch up in commercializing self-driving vehicles as well.
The ES8 electric SUV that Nio, a Shanghai-based EV startup, launched in December offers Level 2 autonomy. That means the EV’s automated system can take control of the vehicle during acceleration, braking, and steering, though its driver must be ready to intervene once the system fails to respond.
This week, Changan Automobile Co., a major state-owned automaker, said it will soon start producing a version of its CS55 compact crossover, which is capable of Level 2 autonomy.
And Geely Automobile Holdings, China’s largest domestic carmaker, wants to go a step further in commercializing autonomous driving. It has selected Swedish safety systems supplier Autoliv and its software joint venture Zenuity to develop advanced driver assistance systems supporting Level 3 autonomy.
At Level 3 autonomy, a vehicle drives itself in most situations though it still requires a driver to take back control when the need arises.
While domestic automakers are stepping up efforts to develop automated vehicles on their own, leading Chinese technology companies including Baidu, Tencent Holdings, Huawei Technologies and Alibaba Group Holdings have each collaborated with several domestic car manufacturers to speed development.
Baidu alone plans to invest 9.8 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in 100 autonomous driving projects in the next three years. Its goal is to develop technology for completely autonomous vehicles on city roads in China by 2020.
Compared with Western countries such as the U.S., China has a much larger population and more congested roads and highways.
Yet, Chinese companies are making good progress to ready self-driving vehicles for commercial use, now that an increasing number of domestic cities are paving regulatory ground and opening roads to test automated vehicles.