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2018-03-20 11:59:01

China’s tech giants have been in a heated race to sit in the driver’s seat of the country’s autonomous vehicle revolution — and now a university has joined in, too.

On Monday, Southeast University in the eastern province of Jiangsu became the first educational institution in China to roll out driverless buses for students and teachers just over a month after it began trial runs. The Nanjing-based school is experimenting with two electric golf cart-like minibuses to promote a more eco-friendly mode of transport on its campus.

It’s a small yet significant move that’s consistent with China’s vision of creating so-called smart cities: those that employ cutting-edge technology to promote an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Some 290 cities across the country, including Nanjing, are on track to become smart cities, and nearly all of them are focused on using autonomous vehicles and AI-powered technology to solve traffic congestion — a major headache for China’s urban centers.

Yin Guodong, a professor at Southeast University’s school of mechanical engineering, told Sixth Tone that it’s an exciting development that nonetheless needs more research. While experimenting with such technology on a smaller scale is relatively easy and hassle-free, he added, cities need to have relevant laws in place before autonomous vehicles become the new normal.

“There must be more technological advancements to ensure safety, in addition to the appropriate laws and environment, for the technology to thrive,” Yin said. “At present, more modifications are required to suit road conditions.”

Tech giants have been at the forefront of China’s autonomous vehicle revolution. Last year, Baidu formed an alliance with 50 domestic and international partners, including Microsoft and German engineering firm Robert Bosch, to accelerate its Apollo project for driverless vehicles. But the company faces stiff competition from international automakers like Tesla and rival tech giants like Google — both of which are developing their own driverless vehicles. Some Chinese provinces like Zhejiang are already building “superhighways” to accommodate the inevitable fleets of self-driving cars.

China currently lacks national regulations for testing self-driving vehicles on public roads, though it is slowly allowing a handful of cities to test drive the technology. Last month, Shanghai became one of the latest cities to issue guidelines for testing self-driving cars, following Beijing, which allowed autonomous vehicles on some public roads last year. The southwestern city of Chongqing has issued a similar regulation, and Shenzhen, China’s southern tech hub, has issued a draft regulation for autonomous vehicles. The different provincial-level rules cover everything from requirements for test drivers and test vehicles to how accidents should be handled.

While self-driving vehicles have been hailed as a major automotive milestone, safety concerns remain a bump in the road. On Monday, an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian.

Atticus Zhao, a senior associate at the law firm King & Wood Mallesons, told Sixth Tone that Monday’s crash will serve as a reminder for both regulators and consumers. In China, he said, the authorities will likely regulate the autonomous vehicle industry carefully, given the country’s “complex driving environment.”

“Safety is the biggest concern for consumers and also regulators,” Zhao said, “This will have an impact on consumers’ adoption [and] alert China’s regulators to pay more attention to safety requirements.”

In January, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s economic planning agency, released a draft regulation outlining its vision for the innovation and development of intelligent vehicles for public feedback. Nearly half of the country’s new vehicles — an estimated 15 million — will be equipped with artificial intelligence by 2020, according to the draft. By 2040, global research firm IHS Markit predicts that China will be at the forefront of a trillion-dollar new “mobility services” industry that could change the country’s entire automobile ecosystem.

Chinese consumers aren’t just coming around to the idea of autonomous vehicles — they’re accelerating it forward. According to a February report by TÜV Rheinland, a global firm specializing in independent inspection services, Chinese motorists are nearly twice as trusting of autonomous driving technology as their American and German counterparts.

“The adoption rate of driverless cars in China will increase, especially for younger generations — and many see big business opportunities as well,” Zhao said. “I think there will be a boom in the self-driving car market in next few years, in keeping with the [government’s] strategy.”

Additional reporting: Nicole Lim; editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A driverless mini bus in Southeast University in Nanjing, JiangSu province, Mar.18, 2018. From the Southeast University offical account)