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2022-08-12 09:30:39

A fatal car crash allegedly involving the usage of a partially automated driving system has once again thrust self-driving technology safety issues into the spotlight amid authorities taking major regulatory steps to accelerate its application.

The accident occured on a highway in the eastern city of Ningbo on Wednesday when an XPeng P7 vehicle crashed into a pulled-over car in the same lane, killing its driver, according to media reports. The XPeng driver claimed he had activated the Lane Centering Control, or LCC, feature and was “distracted” while driving, screenshots of chat records circulating online showed.

XPeng describes LCC as part of the car’s advanced driver assistance system that helps drivers with controlling the steering wheel while positioning the vehicle in the center of the lane. However, the driver of the XPeng P7 said that the system failed to detect the car and send an alert in advance.

Local police confirmed the accident Thursday and said they were unsure whether the assistant driving function had caused the crash. In response, an XPeng Motor spokesperson told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, that the company would “fully” cooperate with the investigation.

“We feel sorry and grieve over the loss of the victim’s life,” the spokesperson said.

A screenshot shows XPeng P7  crashing into another vehicle. From The Paper

A screenshot shows XPeng P7 crashing into another vehicle. From The Paper

Wednesday’s fatality has once again sparked concerns over the safety of self-driving technologies, which are embraced by automakers as one of the auto industry’s key innovations. While the equipped intelligent cameras and radar sensors enable autonomous vehicles to navigate the road, experts have warned that the semi-autonomous system fell short of distinguishing different types of stationary obstacles, which could be linked with a lack of machine learning.

In April, an XPeng vehicle struck a flipped car on a highway after activating the assisted driving function. While the driver claimed the car gave no response as he slammed the brakes, both the police and the automaker said the owner failed to pay close attention to the traffic around him and take control of the car in a timely manner.

Experts told local media that based on the current regulatory framework, drivers would bear full responsibility for using these low-level assisted driving features in the event of an accident. Despite automakers emphasizing the convenience-only nature of the technology and asking users to be wary of potential dangers, consumers have complained of the exaggerated nature of capabilities and criticized the ambiguous rhetoric in the companies’ marketing practices. 

Wednesday’s accident occurred just as regional authorities have rolled out groundbreaking policies to fuel the progress in developing autonomous vehicles. This week, Chongqing and Wuhan licensed web giant Baidu to offer a fully driverless commercial robotaxi service, while Shenzhen implemented dedicated guidelines for the operation of driverless vehicles at the beginning of August, allowing them to travel on designated routes.

Yang Zongyang, a senior auto news editor at Economic Daily, wrote in a commentary that in spite of the current market craze, safety should be the first priority when it comes to the application of such vehicles on a larger scale.

“Given that the technology is not fully developed, along with the major bottlenecks in the sensing, recognizing, and decision-making systems, it will still take a long time for driverless vehicles to become a real commercial option,” Yang said.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: An interior view of XPeng vehicle on display, Shanghai, March 5, 2022. VCG)