China, driverless vehicles and cities of the future

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 14, 2018
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China is less urbanized than most Asian countries and the government is seeking to increaseefficiencies.

At the same time, China plans to be a leader in new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics and their application in areas such as autonomous vehicles.

The advantages of autonomous driving vehicles include:

·Save lives, given human error leads to over a million deaths each year worldwide. As stated by entrepreneur, Elon Musk: "Self-driving cars are the natural extension of active safety and obviously something we should do."

·Gain efficiencies – Self-driving vehicles will have the potential to reduce the need for cars. This will reduce pollution, redress traffic congestion and generally improve China's transportation and quality of urban life.

·Fewer cars and cars operating 24/7 will mean the need for less space taken up by parking. This in turn will free up space for other activities such as: more green spaces, spaces for vegetation and urban farming, space for farmer's markets, greater space for walking and cycling and more community spaces generally.

·Autonomous cars can be outfitted to take advantage of greener technology, an important factor in reducing China's pollution.

·If we de-coupled private ownership of cars, then regulations could more easily enforce safety standards, and problems such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs are significantly lessened.

·China will become a leader and major exporter of technology and systems and thus contribute further to its expertise in the provision of infrastructure.

The reality is that before self-driving vehicles become a global reality and transform life in the 21stcentury, further technology advancements must be made.  This is because self-driving cars involve a broad mix of technologies, including AI, facial integration, big data analytics, video capture, deep learning by machines and more. There are also significant political, social and psychological issues. Change is never easy and seldom is it smooth. The move to self-driving vehicles will disrupt many existing industries. It will challenge assumptions.

To realize the benefits of autonomous driving, China is proceeding step-by-step. This includes pilot programs in key areas such as Guangzhou. It will be important to study these trial programs in order to learn valuable lessons about how to scale autonomous driving to a regional and eventually national level. Indeed, China is now one of the best markets in the world to quickly trial new things and new models, learn the lessons from failures, and repeat the cycle to derive a better model on the next attempt.

One of the biggest challenges facing self-driving vehicles is that China will need to evolve the policy framework and detailed regulatory climate and legal regime that facilitates the development and growth of autonomous vehicles, while at the same time balancing consumer and other interests that are involved.

As with other countries, China's system of laws governing transporting is built around human agency with cars driven by humans. In the early stages of development, autonomous vehicles will have to operate side-by-side with people-driven vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles. New systemic rules, regulations, risk management principles, safety measures, insurance, town-planning laws and other legal requirements will require legal reform until a new legal framework is developed that facilitates and makes workable this new autonomous vehicle environment. This will require patience and a recognition that the full beneficial impact of autonomous vehicles will not occur until all vehicles are autonomous.

One of the many areas requiring more research relates to the social, cultural, psychological aspects of driverless cars. Today, most cars have only one driver. The gains to be had from driverless vehicles won't be realized unless we develop a 'sharing' culture. For example, if people use their self-driving vehicle selfishly, say to go and pick up a pizza, we could end up with even more congestion. It is also important that driverless cars not detract from the much-needed growth of mass transit. Governments will have to examine closely how the growth in the use of driverless vehicles may fit in with overall urban development, improved design of cities, road safety and challenges raised by the growing"Internet-of-things,"privacy being just one of many.

The Chinese government is also partnering with, supporting and encouraging innovation from the private sector. China's leading universities also play an important role. This is happening with several Chinese universities and companies active in research and implementation of autonomous driving technology and systems. These companies include super tech giants such as Baidu which started its driverless car project in 2013 through its Baidu Institute of Deep Learning.

In addition to acting locally, Chinese companies are thinking and acting globally. This includes developing partnerships with companies in other countries, sourcing and recruiting AI and other technology talent overseas. Chinese giants like Baidu, for example, also have AI R&D operations in the U.S. European and U.S. venture capital permeates Chinese AI startups, such as 4Paradigm, a Beijing start-up specializing in machine learning software, and Mobvoi , an AI company that developed Chinese voice recognition, natural language processing, and vertical search technology.

While China should continue to partner with and encourage its domestic autonomous vehicle industry, it is also important that it enforces its competition laws and regulations to ensure that this industry remains competitive. This includes the further opening up of China's domestic economy to foreign investment and participation. This recognizes that AI and self-driving applications are part of a larger economic and technological ecosystem that needs to be global in order to prosper. Chinese AI firms are thus increasingly connected to the global AI ecosystem and are firmly embedded within a global entrepreneurial, technological, financial, insurance, regulatory and supply chain network.

Making self-driving vehicles a reality and reaping the advantages requires the development of an elaborate and sophisticated system. All of this emphasizes the fact that in the 21st century the role of design in all aspects of our lives is more important than ever so that we may reap the benefits of new technology and use it to strengthen communities, while minimizing any potential harmful impacts. In this endeavour, politics, law, ethics, science, technology, culture and common sense must all play a part.

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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