Beijing gives nod to road tests of driverless cars

Baidu's autonomous BMW parked at company headquarters in Beijing in January 2016. Photo: Bloomberg

Beijing has conditionally relaxed restrictions on road tests of autonomous cars, in a sign of growing enthusiasm among the domestic firms to develop fully self-driving vehicles, which are believed to generate billions of dollars every year in revenue from mobile Internet products and services.

Last week, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, together with the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau and the Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology, unveiled a provisional regulation, which allows companies registered in China to apply for temporary permission to test their autonomous cars on yet-to-be-determined designated roads and requires that the autonomous cars for road tests should be taken over by drivers experienced in operating the automated driving system in case of emergencies.

Sensors and cameras must be equipped in the test cars to monitor the behavior of the drivers, who will be held responsible if accidents occur, according to the provisional regulation.

The announcement of the provisional regulation came nearly six months after Baidu was fined for illegally testing a driverless vehicle on Beijing's fifth ring road. Baidu is now improving its Apollo self-driving platform, which the technology giant said will bring a full set of solutions for automated driving. Last year, the Chinese government banned autonomous cars from running on the country's highways.

The provisional regulation on the road tests of autonomous cars will play a positive role in promoting the development of self-driving technologies in China, Baidu said in response to the new policy, according to a report by 36kr.com, a business and technology news provider in the country.

In November, China's Ministry of Science and Technology included Baidu's Apollo self-driving platform, which provides third-party partners with the technologies that enable cars to autonomously run in designated lanes, into its "national team", which is tasked with developing the next-generation artificial intelligence technologies that are vital to pushing the country toward global technology leadership.

At a recent technology conference, Baidu's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robin Li announced plans to work with domestic bus producer King Long to commence the small-scale production and trial operation of a fully autonomous minibus in July 2018.

Experts said that it is easier for two types of companies to meet the requirements of the provisional regulation, which attaches great importance to technical maturity and safety. One is the powerful technology firms like Baidu, which take the lead in developing artificial intelligence technologies needed for automated driving and have accumulated adequate data from the road tests of their self-driving cars; the other is the well-funded automakers, which can apply for establishing their own test fields globally. Currently, it is a trend that technology giants and traditional automobile manufacturers work together on the development of self-driving systems in the light of their advantages in software development and hardware production respectively.

Zhang Tianlei, a self-driving expert, said that the provisional regulation would attract more technology firms to come to Beijing, as the Chinese capital is planning to build a smart transit network.

"Previously, the companies either conducted road tests (of their autonomous cars in China) secretly or registered a branch company in the United States to make road tests there. After Beijing relaxed restrictions (on road tests of autonomous cars), a great number of related companies will converge in the city," said Zhang.

In addition, the provisional regulation also explains the attribution of responsibility and introduces the traffic accident liability insurance.

One article in the provisional regulation stipulates that the test drivers must be legally employed by the companies who conduct the road tests. He Shanshan from a Beijing-based law firm said it means the companies would finally be held responsible if traffic accidents take place. He also said that the companies would compensate 5 million yuan in case traffic accidents occur, Caixin reported.

He revealed that the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Public Security are mulling a national-level regulation for road tests of autonomous cars, which is expected to be launched next year, according to the Caixin report.
 


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