Why Self-Driving Cars Are Getting a Boost In China

Every morning since April, more than a hundred self-driving taxis leave this operation center and take to the streets of Shanghai.

- If you want to call for our AutoX car, you would just go onto the app.

The autonomous fleet's goal? Navigate the chaotic traffic of the tiny city and sweep up data on how other vehicles and people move. Each bit of information is then fed back to the servers of Chinese startup, AutoX, perfecting algorithms that its CEO, Jianxiong Xiao, says will soon make China a nation of self-driving cars.

- If the pandemic in countries like U.S. continue, then the traffic is not coming back. The pandemic give us a head-start advantage compared to players outside China.

When lockdowns across the U.S. forced American companies like Alphabet's Waymo, Ford's Argo and Uber, to suspend the vast majority of its on-the-road testing in March, AutoX was getting back on the road because China was emerging from lockdown.

- Here in the United States, most of the companies have had to stop all of their on-road testing, having to rely almost entirely on simulation work. Having a few months of additional time to do that testing will probably benefit the Chinese companies.

Auto analysts say American companies are still the industry's leaders. But Chinese startups are using the time that the pandemic has bought them to get ahead.

According to Boston Consulting Group, since 2019, Chinese companies, including Baidu, DiDi, and AutoX, more than doubled their fleets of self-driving vehicles on Chinese roads to 260. The urgency to limit face-to-face interactions during the pandemic has also helped companies raise $1.4 billion so far this year.

- If we can make the car fully automatic, you don't need a driver. It's actually much safer considering COVID-19.

This is the Shenzhen headquarters of AutoX and during the past few months, the team has been working on a new radar system that can see a traffic light or another car that's 1,600 feet away.

- There's a camera-cleaning system, so that our car can drive under heavy raining situation.

Xiao says he expects the technology to be first widely adopted in China, since not many people have driver's licenses.

- In the U.S. culture-wise, everyone know how to drive, but not many people in China can afford to have a car. And that's why shared mobility is a must-have. There's no other choice.

AutoX also has two R and D centers in Silicon Valley and San Diego to test and feed information back to China. Xiao says the pandemic accelerated his company's plans. In April, it opened what he says is China's largest self-driving taxi operation center in Shanghai.

From the start, the Chinese government has played a critical role. In late February, Beijing said a third of all cars produced in China should be self-driving by 2025.

- That's really where the biggest advantage is going to be.

Sam Abuelsamid is a car analyst, who's been researching the development of self-driving cars in China and the U.S. for more than 13 years.

- On deploying that the largest adoption of automated driving technology in the next decade will be in China. The addressable market in China is much larger than anywhere else. And the government policies in China definitely have the potential to increase that adoption.

In Shanghai, the local government has created a special 30-mile zone where companies can test the latest features of their self-driving cars.

- This looks like a normal bus stop but this is one of the places where people can call for our AutoX self-driving car.

The most important technology that the local government installed are the 5G sensors along the roads that help to quickly stream loads of data to the taxis.

- The white boxes, basically they have the transmitters. There are some cameras that are installed on the side of the road. So what they do, they would detect the objects.

This infrastructure is called vehicle-to-everything or V2X. Auto analysts say, the U.S. has rolled out nearly 100 V2X projects, far less than Beijing's requirement to cover 90% of highways in China with the technology by the end of the year.

- If there's a truck in front of the automated vehicle, that sensor's not gonna be able to see what's on the other side of that truck or what's around the corner. But adding V2X allows the vehicle to extend its situational awareness beyond line of sight. And that's something that I think the U.S. is definitely further behind.

To catch up, analysts say American self-driving car makers themselves would have to spend billions of dollars for V2X fitted roads or create vehicles that are equipped with sophisticated technology that wouldn't need to rely on 5G roads at all.

While Waymo and Ford's Argo said they restarted some of their road operations in May, analysts say the bulk of U.S. testing will be limited until the pandemic is brought under control.

Auto analysts say, the country to first mass-produce self-driving vehicles will be the one to shape the future of not just shared transportation but other key industries that have seen a boost during the pandemic.

- Goods delivery is likely to be a better opportunity in the near term for automated vehicles. The trend towards more e-commerce is going to continue and accelerate and people are going to be relying more on deliveries.

And AutoX CEO, Xiao, wants to make sure his cars are ready when that transition happens.

- The Chinese market is very huge. You can do in one city in China, you can use the same technology, the same business model, you can copy in the following 200 city in China. Another country may have only three major cities. Then the maximum you can do is multiply by three. There's not much financial return. But in China, we can make tons of money.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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