China‘s first road with 5G network is opened for tests of autonomous driving in Beijing‘s Fangshan district in September 2018. Photo: VCGChina‘s autonomous driving industry is accelerating growth as the COVID-19 epidemic has increased market demand for driverless technology.
Major industry players told the Global Times they are optimistic about the Chinese autonomous driving sector. Though it began later than the US, it is likely to be at a world-leading level in the near future.
The demand for autonomous driving continued to rise amid the epidemic — driverless technology was used to deliver goods to people who were staying at home to maintain social distance.
“Chinese people began to accept and realize the necessity of unmanned vehicles,” a spokesperson of Pony.ai, a self-driving company with operations in both China and the US, told the Global Times.
On May 14, Pony.ai obtained a license in Beijing to carry out manned autonomous driving tests. The firm has begun road tests including those for online car hailing and shuttle services in certain districts in Beijing.
Other firms in the industry have also taken further steps forward despite challenges posed by the virus.
Li Zhenyu, vice president and general manager of Baidu‘s Intelligent Driving Group, recently announced the completion of the company‘s Apollo Park in Beijing.
Covering an area of 13,500 square meters, the park is the world‘s largest autonomous driving and vehicle-infrastructure cooperative system testing base and has already deployed over 200 autonomous test vehicles.
Baidu has deployed 104 driverless cars in 17 Chinese cities in recent months as the country steps up efforts to drive new infrastructure projects, which are expected to become new stimuli to boost economic growth.
Baidu‘s Apollo robotaxi service was first introduced to Changsha, capital of Central China‘s Hunan Province in September 2019 with an initial fleet of 45 driverless cars, about two years after Google‘s self-driving unit Waymo started its pilot project in Arizona, according to media reports.
Since April, residents of Changsha have been able to hail autonomous taxis for free through Baidu‘s navigation app Baidu Maps.
Baidu is working with more than 10 provinces to apply smart transportation, Li noted.
Li said smart transportation plays a vital role in building new infrastructure and, thanks to China‘s supporting policies to build a strong transportation network, the smart transportation sector will soon embrace a boom.
Although the US began developing autonomous driving technology early, China has worked at a rapid pace to catch up, Li said, noting that Baidu‘s autonomous driving platform Apollo is open to partners and its vehicle-infrastructure cooperative system will give the Chinese industry a chance to overtake the US sector.
Industry insiders said Chinese governments at various levels have attached great importance to the autonomous driving sector. Their frequent issuance of test licenses and road test data, as well as their improvement of infrastructure, will allow the Chinese industry to pursue faster growth than other countries.
Transport authorities have awarded road test licenses for autonomous driving in nearly 20 cities including Beijing, North China‘s Tianjin Municipality and Changsha since March 2018, media reported.
China will advance pilot demonstrations of autonomous driving in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and the in North China‘s Hebei Province in the near future, Vice Transport Minister Liu Xiaoming told a press conference on May 19.
China is also conducting exchanges and communication on driverless vehicle technology with other countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, Liu said, noting also that the country is cooperating with Russia to build a driverless car passageway.
Liu said the transport ministry will devise implementation suggestions for promoting the development and application of autonomous driving technology, and will study and revise road test management standards.
The Pony.ai spokesperson has confidence in the prospects of China‘s autonomous driving industry thanks to supporting policies from domestic authorities.
Li forecast that autonomous driving in certain areas can be realized by 2023-24, but there is still a long way to go before driverless travel will be implemented on a large scale.