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China sets timeline for putting autonomous vehicles into operation

Autonomous-vehicle startup JingChi began welcoming the public to test drives in January 2018. Photo: Yu Nakamura

China has put forward an action plan to facilitate application of autonomous driving in specific scenarios in demonstration of its firm support for the emerging technology which it once considered as a hidden risk for public transportation safety.

In the Action Plan for the Development of the Industry of Smart, Internet-connected Vehicles, which was released recently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology sets a self-driving goal for 2020, when a technological system will be set up for wider use of cars featuring Level 3 autonomy or above in designated areas in China.

The Society of Automotive Engineers divides autonomous driving technology into six levels from Level 0 to Level 5. A car featuring Level 5 autonomy can run independently without any human intervention.

By 2020, 30 percent of new vehicles will be equipped with driving assistance systems and 60 percent of new vehicles will offer Internet-connected in-vehicle information services, according to the action plan.

The realization of the 2020 goal depends on whether mobile communications technology can be adopted in more regions of the country. The action plan aims to realize commercial deployment of the 4G technology-enabled Internet of Vehicle on major expressways and city roads by 2020. It also calls for strengthened efforts in promoting the commercial use of 5G technology in the Internet of Vehicle. Huawei is a major 5G solutions provider, which is shunned by some Western countries like the United States. The technology company has worked with the Ministry of Public Security and China Mobile to launch a demonstration project of the Internet of Vehicle in the eastern city of Wuxi.

The action plan marks a big stride toward creating driverless transportation in the country after several big cities last year relaxed restrictions on road tests of autonomous cars, which are expected to generate billions of dollars every year in revenue from mobile Internet products and services.

Currently, China is establishing a national-level vehicle-road coordination platform as part of its plan to build a smart transportation system, helped by a "national team" made up of some Chinese technology giants investing in self-driving technology.

In September 2018, Baidu announced to turn its vehicle-road coordination plan of the self-driving platform Apollo into an open-source software. Just days after Baidu's announcement, China Mobile joined hands with more than 40 partners to establish an alliance which aims to develop self-driving technology under the 5G era. And then, Alibaba unveiled its plans to build brand-new smart expressways powered by vehicle-road coordination technology in partnership with the Ministry of Transport, China Unicom and several automakers.

In the past year, domestic media have reported massive efforts by technology firms and carmakers in testing autonomous cars in special regions.

In December, Audi's China research and development team partnered with Huawei to complete China's first test of vehicle-road coordination in the closed section of a highway, using an autonomous car driven by Level 4 autonomy. In the road test, the car could run without human intervention and could recognize traffic signs automatically. The road test also involved testing of the accident early-warning system, lane-changing assistance system and emergency braking system.

Another field where autonomous driving can be useful is logistics. It is hoped that could use driverless heavy trucks to transport merchandise stored in warehouses connected by highways in 2020.

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