Letter from China: Envisioning intelligent driving in near future

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, April 17, 2024
Adjust font size:

by Xinhua writer Yue Xitong

BEIJING/SHANGHAI, April 17 (Xinhua) -- In the not-so-distant past, if I had been asked to sum up my attitude to intelligent transportation in one word, it would have been "indifferent." But what a difference a week can make.

Last week, I was a passenger in a driverless taxi in Beijing E-town, a national-level economic-technological development area. It was an impressive experience that really drove home how quickly things can change.

Curious and a little nervous, I climbed into the rear seat of an unmanned car, technically supported by Pony.ai, an autonomous driving service provider. A disembodied voice prompted me to secure my belt and press a small screen in front of me. In the blink of an eye, the engine was activated, and I was on my way.

The half-hour ride was smoother than I expected, with the car adeptly navigating cyclists and various obstacles without any need for intervention.

In March 2023, China approved the commercial operation of autonomous driving services, allowing tech giant Baidu and Pony.ai to provide fully driverless rides without a safety supervisor aboard in the 60-square-km economic-technological development area in suburban Beijing.

As of April, Pony.ai has clocked up more than 31 million km in autonomous driving tests, with fully driverless tests surpassing 3 million km, according to Li Chengxue, from Pony.ai's PR department.

Wondering whether the unmanned ride would disturb other drivers, my eyes were constantly darting back and forth, but fellow road users seemed nonplussed at this auto newcomer.

"Residents in E-town are used to such cars," Li said.

By the end of 2023, over 30 Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou had issued road test licenses for autonomous driving.

Intelligent transportation is not just for people but has been applied to scenarios like courier and freight services. What I saw recently in WestWell, an autonomous-driving developer in metropolis Shanghai, is a testament.

The startup was said to have made the unmanned truck that features in the Chinese domestic blockbuster "The Wandering Earth Ⅱ." I asked Westwell vice president Zhang Bo, "Was that truck an imitation or just a film prop?"

"No, it is real! Our Q-truck," Zhang said ambitiously.

The Q-truck is an electric autonomous vehicle like no other. About 3 meters high and 4 meters long, the cuboid is capable of pulling a 13-meter trailer loaded with containers of 75 tonnes in maximum weight.

Given its huge bulk and long endurance, the truck has been used to support smart ports. Zhang told me that Q-trucks were introduced to Laem Chabang Port in Thailand in 2020, and now about a half of the port's container delivery depends on such trucks.

Now this Chinese high-tech company has provided products and services for customers from 18 countries and regions in the world, covering harbors, land ports, airports, railway hubs and manufacturers, Zhang added.

After experiencing autonomous driving on the ground, let's take a look at something exciting in the air. My eye-opening trip to Shanghai acquainted me with a new term -- eVTOL, and the possibility of "flying taxis."

EVTOL, literally meaning electric vertical takeoff and landing, refers to a kind of aerial vehicle that is capable of taking off vertically and switching to smooth cruising at an altitude between 600 and 30,000 meters.

Different from traditional helicopters, most eVTOL aircraft are electricity-powered and autonomous driving. They require less space for takeoff and landing and generate less noise and pollution.

I paid a visit to AutoFlight, a Shanghai-based developer of eVTOLs. In February, its latest generation of eVTOL aircraft, co-named Prosperity, completed a trial commercial flight in south China's Guangdong Province.

The flight, about 50 km in distance within 20 minutes, marked the world's first public demonstration of an eVTOL aircraft on a cross-sea and inter-city route.

At the company's display area, I saw the engine. I was amazed by its weight, as I could carry one of its propeller blades with one hand.

The company's brand department told me that the propellers were made of special materials that it developed in-house. Relatively smaller weight helps further increase the aircraft's takeoff capacity.

My interest in eVTOLs took off at that moment, so I jumped into the cabin of Prosperity. It is equipped with four passenger seats and one pilot seat, and was quite comfortable.

An increasing number of eVTOLs can be spotted buzzing above Chinese cities as the manufacturers step up efforts to commercialize this emerging aviation tech. AutoFlight said it has inked an order for 30 aircraft with ZTO Express, one of the leading express delivery companies in China.

The emerging industry gave rise to a new economic mode called "low-altitude economy." According to a report published earlier this month, the size of this economy exceeded 500 billion yuan (69.08 billion U.S. dollars) in 2023, up 33.8 percent year-on-year.

The report also revealed that the country's eVTOL industry registered close to 1 billion yuan. As of February, there are more than 57,000 enterprises in China's low-altitude economic sector.

Expected to be approved by the Civil Aviation Administration to put its eVTOLs into commercial operation in 2026, AutoFlight plans to price the airfare for a one-way passenger at 300 yuan. "Taking flying taxis to work is truly foreseeable in the near future!" I marveled. Enditem

Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:   
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from China.org.cnMobileRSSNewsletter