Is autonomous driving imminent in China?

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More and more tech companies and automobile makers are investing large amounts of money into the highly competitive autonomous driving industry. Competitors range from giant automakers and tech moguls to startups. So what stage of development is the autonomous driving industry currently in? Which industries are at the forefront of these developments? What are the benefits of full-autonomous driving?

To answer these three questions, we will need to understand different levels of autonomation. SAE International defines motor vehicle driving automation systems using a tiered system which ranges from no driving automation (level 0) to full driving automation (level 5). This system has also been adopted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) for Level 1 and 2 and Automated Driving System (ADS) for Level 3 to 5 are essential for the transition to full autonomy.


Source: NHTSA

Current stage of autonomous vehicle development in China

In China, the focus is on the lower-level automated technologies such as L1 and L2. The Minister of Science and Technology urged Chinese automakers to implement more realistic technologies and applications to increase driving safety and minimize traffic accidents. That is to say, the development of ADAS is crucial for the near future of transportation. High-level autonomy will be realized by 2040, according to Yang Diange, head of the automotive engineering department at Tsinghua University.

China is granting more permission for public road testing. Chongqing became the third city to allow tests after Beijing passed the regulation in December, and Shanghai on March 1. A test driver is required for all the test., and manufacturers and drivers are liable for any accidents. Baidu just received its first temporary license plates for testing on public roads in Beijing on March 22, and it is very cautiously taking baby steps. Safety and adherence to traffic rules are Baidu’s priorities for these early tests; therefore, the test speed is a little slower than the road speed limits. Baidu can renew the temporary license after assessments, and it plans to put self-driving cars in China by 2019.

Two forefront industries in this development

HD map

High-definition (HD) maps are central to the self-driving system. They allow autonomous vehicles to understand the surrounding areas. Baidu started developing HD maps in 2013, and its strengths in deep learning allow for better data processing and map creation. In July last year, Baidu partnered with TomTom to develop HD maps. TomTom sets a worldwide standard with its real-time mapping technology to enables safe autonomous driving.The HD maps will be integrated into Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving software.

As of May 2016, 38% of the new cars sold in China have a pre-installed navigation system. Car owners now expect the mapping and navigation systems in their cars when they purchase them. Given the highly sensitive nature of surveillance activities involved in HD maps in China, the entry level for mapping services is very high for startups. Baidu Maps certainly can take advantage of its existing data and utilize its relationship with Beijing. It is not surprising that Baidu prioritizes HD maps over its search engine as a bigger business.


Sensors are another critical part of the ADAS. Sensors help the cars to identify roads, recognize pedestrians, measure speeds, read traffic signs, etc. Three major sensor systems are used at ADAS: camera-, radar-, and LiDar-based systems. Camera and radar systems are used in L1-L2 vehicles and are the prerequisites for all further levels of automation. The LiDar system is rarely seen in lower-level self-driving cars due to its high cost.

However, Markets and Markets estimated that the LiDAR for the automotive market will reach USD 735 million in 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 28.32%. Velodyne, the leading LiDAR company cut the price of its base model unit by half at the beginning of this year. Lower cost single-laser-solid state LiDARs were seen at CES recently. LeddarTech and Quanergy are both able to make offers at hundreds of dollars. Their products can withstand the daily wear and tear of driving.

Benefits of autonomous driving


Safety is the paramount benefit of autonomous driving. 94% of the traffic accidents in the U.S. are due to human errors. Despite the recent Uber autonomous car’s fatal crash, the fully developed autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce or remove the human error from driving. Reducing vehicle crashes and accidents could reduce costs related to workplace productivity and minimize the loss of life and decreased quality of life that results from traffic-related injuries.


Autonomous vehicles can eliminate poor driving behaviors and improve traffic flow. When the roads are filled autonomous vehicles, transportation and infrastructure systems can be used to their full capacity. Governments can use smart systems to collect traffic information from autonomous vehicles more easily in order to deploy traffic signals and manage transportation. The system can dispatch proper demands to guide cars. In fact, Alibaba is exploring the potential to collaborate with other partners.


The hands-free drivers can save 50 minutes each day on their commute–time which could be spent working, relaxing, or accessing entertainment in their cars. A fun fact is that if you add the time saved over the entire world, you will have twice the time needed to build the Great Pyramid of Giza.


Self-driving vehicles will certainly provide senior citizens and disabled populations a new option to transport themselves.

Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She used to live in New York and is originally from Shanghai. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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