The long road to autonomous motoring
China's driverless-car race has additional benefits for the country - and the world - that will stretch far into the future
The concept of autonomous vehicles has been capturing the public's imagination worldwide for decades.
Images of cars that can negotiate obstacles at breakneck speeds without the need for a human driver have, until recently, been a Hollywood fantasy reserved for science fiction films. However, given recent leaps in artificial intelligence and machine learning, the world is keen to make this technology a reality, with major players in both China and the West racing to be the first to achieve vehicle autonomy.
The quest to provide the first functional mainstream driverless car service has not been easy. It has been a rough journey, fraught with danger and uncertainty. This year there have already been two acknowledged fatalities, both involving the products and services of American corporations, where autonomous systems have been attributed as the cause.
The public backlash that affected Tesla and Uber after these incidents in March has not, however, been enough to stop the wheels of progress worldwide. After all, it is estimated that around 1.3 million people die from human-error-related car fatalities every year, and there are many proponents of the decrease in traffic and global fuel emissions that reliable driverless technology would bring. A study by research company Strategy Analytics suggests that the worldwide driverless vehicle market will be worth around $7 trillion by 2050, and will provide the countries that embrace it with significant infrastructural advantages over their human counterparts.
The rush to bring driverless technology to the masses is intense, with China rapidly becoming a significant competitor with the US in research and development. Earlier this month, the Chinese ride-share giant Didi received approval to test autonomous vehicles in California, complementing progress the company had made last year through opening an artificial intelligence and autonomous driving research facility in the state. The approval from the California state regulator is Didi's first license for testing vehicles on public roads in the United States, where accommodating safety regulations attract companies from around the world.
The Californian driverless gold rush has attracted much attention from China. Besides Didi, companies such as Faraday and Future, Baidu and Changan Automobile have all started testing in the US state. Competition is fierce, with more than 50 companies operating within California. Apple harbors ambitions to have self-driving cars on the roads as soon as 2019.
China's investment into this nascent technology, however, will be sure to produce huge long-term future benefits that are only now starting to become measurable. A recent report by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America projects that intelligent transport systems (known as ITS) could achieve a 2 to 4 percent reduction in oil consumption and polluting greenhouse gas emissions each year as the technology gradually becomes more widespread.
This long-term game will play out extremely beneficially for China, which has an ever-growing population of more than 310 million drivers and is constantly looking for new ways to reduce its carbon footprint. The prevention of gargantuan carbon emissions will be beneficial to the wider world as the superpower's growth becomes more sustainable and new technologies are introduced.
President Xi Jinping has said that AI and autonomous vehicles are an integral part of his national strategy to poise China as a world leader in new technologies for the coming decades. The heavy investments by the country into driverless technology have been spurred on by positive public perceptions, something the US has struggled with for several years.
In a Quartz survey of 10,000 people, more than 63 percent of Chinese participants thought that self-driving cars would increase safety, compared with 34 percent of their US counterparts. This positive outlook was also echoed with reactions to the statement: "I am hopeful about the future of autonomous vehicles." An overwhelming 83 percent of Chinese adults agreed with the statement, compared with just 50 percent of those from the US, indicating a vast disparity in attitudes between the two countries.
For the US to catch up with China's powerful enthusiasm and progress in the field, greater education may be needed to inform the public of the potential benefits research and development in the field bring. This is a big deal as, in turn, the growth of a mainstream Chinese autonomous vehicle market will also lead to an increase in the AI market in the long term, deepening the country's futuristic economic ecosystem.
It is clear that driverless technology is still in its infancy. However exciting it may be, it is not a case of who reaches the market first but, rather, getting suitable infrastructure in place to create a receptive public market in the long run, with sustainable development that benefits both China and other countries in a safe manner. The race is on - but the road may be longer than first envisaged.
The author is a London-based columnist. Contact the writer at email@example.com.