Navigant Research Blog

In China, Cars Learn the Roads

David Alexander — August 5, 2014

Navigant Research’s recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, focused on the activities of large global automakers, Tier One suppliers, and universities and research organizations (including, of course, Google) in Western Europe and North America.  Extensive work is also happening in Japan, and the Japanese automakers are among the companies providing a steady stream of interesting automotive engineering news.

Not so much is heard about what’s going on in China.  The rapid growth in vehicle sales in that country gets most of the headlines, along with the accompanying congestion and air pollution.  But, like Northern California, China also has a tech company that has built its fortune from an Internet search engine and has branched into R&D on self-driving vehicles.  Sometimes referred to as China’s Google, Baidu revealed in July that it’s working on what it calls a highly autonomous car.

Unlike the Google car that famously has no steering wheel or foot pedals, the Baidu concept will be a conventional vehicle with a driver when the first prototypes are shown in 2015, but it will have plenty of intelligence and awareness built in.  The best way to think about it is to consider an earlier form of personal transportation: the horse.  The rider gives instructions about when to start and stop and turn, but the horse knows to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations and can learn familiar routes and navigate itself through traffic.  This is a very different approach to the Google model, which requires highly detailed digital maps of every road before it can venture out.

Affordable Autonomy

The only other developer I have heard contemplating this approach is the Australian startup Zoox, which I mentioned in a previous blog.  Baidu is also reportedly working on a driverless bicycle that will be able to deliver packages as well as provide mobility to those unable to drive.  A prototype is slated for demonstration by the end of this year.

The Chinese approach is an interesting alternative to the high-tech and likely high-cost options for self-driving being developed in the rest of the world.  One of the keys to success in the mass market is affordability.  Another obstacle to the rollout of autonomous driving, in the West, is legislation.  In China, the government can act very quickly to support the modification of laws to allow driverless vehicles to operate on public roads if it deems the technology ready and the benefits are clear.

Chinese car makers have struggled to break into Western markets, typically finding it difficult to meet the extensive crash safety specifications required in the European Union and the United States.  They’ve had more success exporting to other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In all these regions, getting permission to offer semi-autonomous vehicles could prove relatively easy, and the potential benefits for safety and traffic flow are even bigger than they are in the high-profile Western countries.

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