Baidu to test its self-driving cars on Beijing streets. What’s next?

Beijing’s traffic authority has began issuing temporary license plates for autonomous vehicles, giving Chinese search engine behemoth Baidu the greenlight to begin testing its fleet of AI-equipped cars on public roads in the nation’s capital.

The announcement comes just days after an Uber-operated self-driving vehicle struck and killed a 49-year-old woman in the American city of Tempe, Arizona late last week. The fatal collision, which is thought to be the first caused by an autonomous vehicle, has raised doubts regarding the safety of such vehicles, particularly because video footage of the crash offers a less-than-conclusive explanation why the vehicle in question failed to stop.

Uber has temporarily ceased all road testing in North American cities, and an investigation of the accident is currently underway. It’s too early to determine whether the collision will ultimately impede the development of driverless technology, but some expect regulation in American cities to grow more stringent as a result.

Full speed ahead

Seemingly undaunted by Uber’s accident, Chinese regulatory authorities have taken a big step forward in opening up public roads in Beijing to self-driving vehicles. Safety remains a top priority. According to China Daily, autonomous vehicle testing in Beijing will be limited to 33 roads, totalling approximately 105 kilometers, all of which lie beyond the 5th ring road in suburban areas less densely populated than the city’s center. Individual vehicles are eligible for testing on public roads only after completing rigorous testing that includes multiple assessments and at least 5,000 kilometers of error-free driving on private, closed roads. On top of that, each testing vehicle is required to have a driver with a minimum of 50 hours of training who can take control of the wheel in the event of a system mishap.

The move speaks to China’s ambitions to rival and surpass American competitors and industry leaders like Uber and Google-affiliated Waymo. In an assertive push last September, Baidu established a USD 1.5 billion fund to fasttrack Apollo, its autonomous-vehicle initiative that is widely seen as China’s top contender in the industry. Baidu plans to invest in more than 100 entities in the next three years, and, by 2020, seeks to have end-to-end, fully autonomous technology ready for the roads.

Road to regulation

Self-driving technology has quickly become a battleground for US-China competition, and the victor will likely come to dominate in the forthcoming generations of technology. Conventional knowledge has placed American companies like Uber, Waymo, and Tesla at the forefront of the technology given their wealth of data points and considerable head start.

The recent report of international professional services company KPMG entitled “Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index” ranked the US third and China 16th, citing the former’s high marks in technology and innovation as well as strong industry partnerships.

Yet, China is in hot pursuit of its competitors — and undoubtedly catching up. According to Huu-Hoi Tran, Partner and Head of Automotive China, KPMG China, “Growing mobility needs, insufficient public transportation and a wider acceptance on shared economy are driving innovation in intelligent mobility, new energy vehicles (NEVs) and autonomous driving. This is further boosted by central as well as local government support, which creates an attractive market for OEMs, startups and tech players.”

Self-driving technology in China will likely benefit from the country’s more accomodating regulatory regime, and this may pave the way for innovation and investment. Compared to the US and other Western countries where tech companies will likely experience pushback from stringent government regulators, China’s government is committed to fastricking autonomous-driving technology as part of the country’s “Made in 2025” policy initiative to cement China as a global tech leader.

Of course, Baidu is not without its own regulatory hurdles. Last summer, the company found itself in hot water after testing a driverless car on a public road in Beijing as part of a press event demonstration.

Let the race begin.

(Top image courtesy of Baidu)

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