Driverless cars zooming onto China's public roads
Proponents of autonomous vehicles believe that self-driving cars will help cure a bevy of problems that plague our streets, including over a million annual road traffic deaths globally and the unsustainable emission of greenhouse gases.
Author: Sam Chase, The Connected Car
While it may seem like a lesser problem, traffic congestion is interrelated with both issues. Additionally, the time saved by reducing commute times even minimally would amount to a huge societal benefit.
Driverless cars could accomplish this and more by traveling at speeds that help traffic flow more smoothly, preventing the "phantom" traffic jams that seem to develop without a clear cause. More efficient traffic flow would be further enhanced by vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications that allow cars to signal their intentions to surrounding vehicles and to an overall infrastructure grid so other road actors can react accordingly.
Few countries suffer from worse traffic congestion than China.
In 2017, the number of registered cars in China topped 300 million, nearly matching the number of people in the US.
China is home to ten of the 25 most congested cities in the world, according to the TomTom Traffic Index. Self-driving cars could help ease these issues, but until now, China had prohibited testing them on public roads. But in late December, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport announced that companies that have tested driverless cars on private roads can now apply for permission to test on public roads in the Chinese capital.
In principle, the application process to test a driverless car in Beijing will work similarly to states like California. A Chinese autonomous vehicle company will need to already be registered with the government and must have already performed extensive testing at enclosed facilities. Once approved, all self-driving cars in Beijing will be required to have a human operator behind the wheel, ready to take control of the car if necessary.
Awarded permits in China will be determined by a council "made up of experts in transportation, telecommunications, automobiles, computer science, and law," Yiting Sun reported at the MIT Technology Review. This determination will be made solely on the federal level, although local municipalities may have a say in which roads and highways will be made available for AV testing. In the US, permits need to be awarded by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a given state's Department of Transportation.
Certain states in the US have also begun to do away with the absolute requirement that AVs on public roads be attended by a human operator. In October, California became the fifth state to allow companies that have proven their autonomous systems to be highly effective to test 'true' driverless cars.
Given that this development only came years after driverless cars first began testing on American streets, it may be some time before truly driverless cars are seen on Chinese roads. Given that China is the world's most populous country, the importance of this development can't be overstated.
It is both an enormous step towards improving safety, transportation accessibility and environmental sustainability in China, and an enormous step in the global advancement of driverless cars.
Image credit: The Connected Car