Since early 2020, Wuhan has been predominantly known as the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, central Chinese cities are now gaining global recognition for a different achievement – hosting the world’s largest fleet of self-driving cars.
Wuhan is emerging as a crucial testing ground for the evolving technologies, essential infrastructure, and regulatory framework supporting autonomous driving in China. This progress presents a new challenge to the West, which is already trailing behind China in the development of electric vehicles and now faces China’s advancements in autonomous driving.
According to Raymond Tsang, an automotive technology expert at Bain in Shanghai, China is likely only one or two years behind in deployment readiness and technology availability. The momentum to close this gap is robust, posing a challenge to the West’s current standing.
China commenced commercial development of driverless technology in 2013, approximately five years after the United States. As of September last year, autonomous vehicles in China had covered a cumulative total of 70 million kilometers, on par with the United States, according to data from Bain.
In Wuhan, 500 robotaxis, mainly operated by Baidu, completed over 730,000 ride-hailing trips last year. This surpasses the combined orders of over 700,000 in Phoenix, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as reported by Waymo, Google’s parent company, Alphabet’s self-driving car developer. Autonomous vehicle safety gained attention in October when a Cruise robotaxi collided with a pedestrian in San Francisco.
Despite Baidu promoting “fully driverless vehicles,” a visit to their autonomous driving center in Beijing revealed each robotaxi was remotely monitored by a human, adhering to regulatory requirements. Waymo emphasized its fully autonomous cars’ capability to make every driving decision without relying on a human driver.
However, safety concerns persist in China, and Baidu’s robotaxi project in Wuhan has showcased lingering conservatism. Baidu has claimed no significant accidents during trials, but each robotaxi is monitored remotely, reflecting cautious regulatory measures.
Apart from Wuhan, Baidu and other domestic rivals like Pony.ai and AutoX have established testing zones in various Chinese cities. According to analysts, despite the U.S. leading in certain technologies underpinning autonomous driving, the scale of commercial trials in China is positioning it toward a tipping point around 2027 for large-scale commercial viability.
The legal framework for liability, insurance, and road and telecom infrastructure improvements is expected to align with this timeline. Companies in China leverage existing networks, such as roadside cameras and 5G coverage, providing an advantage over other jurisdictions.
The McKinsey global survey of autonomous vehicle executives indicates a state of flux, with expectations for driverless development extended to around 2030 for commercially viable robotaxis. China’s progress, backed by government support, research investments, and consumer enthusiasm for technology, has led to an increasingly competitive landscape.
While trade barriers and tensions in U.S.-China relations pose challenges, Beijing is taking a more active role in regulating driverless projects, releasing local government guidelines and public transport safety guidelines. As China aims to win the race in autonomous driving technology, analysts anticipate continued challenges for multinational companies due to China’s strict regulations on geospatial and customer data.