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Public-private efforts pushing China to top of autonomous driving technology

A self-driving car developed in China evades people along the roadside and follows the vehicle in front, in Shanghai's Jiading District on Sept. 19, 2018. (Mainichi/Kiyohiro Akama)

SHANGHAI/BAODING, China -- An autonomously driven golf cart travels down a walking path in a public park in Shanghai's Jiading District. In the driver's seat, a person is holding a tablet, but they do not once touch the steering wheel.

A road marking in Xiongan New District in central China's Hebei Province reads "autonomous vehicles only," in this picture taken on Oct. 4, 2018. (Mainichi/Kiyohiro Akama)

Sensors built into the vehicle analyze the condition of its surroundings, moving forward while maneuvering around pedestrians and stopped vehicles. Directly behind the golf cart, another vehicle maintains a certain distance, automatically adjusting its speed to that of the other autonomous car.

"It may look like a simple golf cart on the outside, but the level of autonomous driving technology here has already surpassed that of manufacturers in Japan, the United States and Europe," proudly said an individual related to the Chinese company developing the cart. "Various new technologies we developed in this testing district have been put into use in this vehicle."

The Chinese government designated the area the country's first test district for autonomous vehicles in 2015. Seeking what is said to be the world's most advanced testing ground for their products, some 60 domestic and international companies like automobile manufacturers and IT companies have flocked to Jiading.

What can be called the center of the district is a 2.2-square kilometer facility where the entrance and exit of outsiders is strictly limited. Deputy General Manager Li Lin of the Shanghai ICV Innovation Center gave the Mainichi Shimbun an explanation of some of the experiments currently being run here.

Li said that inside of the facility, the layout of a town, complete with schools and hospitals, has been recreated, and mobile mannequins move around in place of pedestrians. "We do a thorough check on autonomous vehicles inside this area, and moved only those proven to be safe (on to trials in public spaces)," he said.

The flow of traffic throughout the entire district is controlled using various sensors attached to the mini town's traffic lights and along the roads that constantly exchange information with the autonomous vehicles. In the future, developers would like to expand the scale of this system to an area of 100 square kilometers -- roughly 1.5 times the size of the land surrounded by the JR Yamanote Line loop in central Tokyo. They plan to realize an "autonomous driving city" that is best suited for the driverless vehicles.

"Shanghai will become an important center for autonomous vehicles in the world," Li emphasized.

However, the grand system in Jiading is still only a "model case." Under the sponsorship of Chinese President Xi Jinping, in the "Xiongan New Area" where construction began in April 2017, the vision of completely switching out all vehicles for self-driving ones is heading toward concrete realization.

--- A city for auto-driving cars only

Located roughly two hours by highway from Beijing in Hebei Province's Baoding, a citizen center has been built in a corner of Xiongan New Area where there were only parked construction vehicles a year before. Inside, a completely automated convenience store has opened, and robot delivery vehicles come and go on the streets of this futuristic city.

In the 1980s, the southern city of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province became the center of the Chinese economy thanks to top Chinese Communist Party official Deng Xiaoping. It was followed by Shanghai's Pudong District under the party's former General Secretary Jiang Zemin in the 1990s.

Xiongan New Area under Xi is aiming instead to become a center of scientific research. Currently, the district is 100 square kilometers, but is envisioned to be roughly 2,000 square kilometers when completed.

"All main transportation infrastructure systems like railways and roads are being built underground," explained former Shanghai Mayor Xu Quangdi, who was involved in the planning of the area. But the wonder of wonders in Xiongan is the use of driverless vehicles. Including private cars owned by individuals, all vehicles that will run on the district's roads in the future will be completely autonomous. Around the new citizen center there are already signs reading, "autonomous vehicles only."

The cars being road tested here have been mainly developed by major Chinese internet search engine operator Baidu Inc. Last year, the company was named the leader of driverless vehicle development by the Chinese government. Government-owned telecommunications giants are bringing in cutting-edge infrastructure, along with other companies from all over China.

At the beginning of October, urban planning expert Zheng Wang, 55, inspected the new city with a sharp eye. "The fact that this city can be planned from the ground up is its strength," he said. "The city is being built on the assumption that autonomous vehicles will be introduced, so it has a clear advantage over existing cities trying to adapt their transportation infrastructure later."

-- China's driverless vehicle market could be worth $500 billion

Autonomous vehicle technology will no doubt greatly influence the future of the automobile manufacturing industry. Companies all over the world are locked in a race to come out on top, but traffic laws in many countries are proving to be a large obstacle, and cases where trials cannot be properly run have stood out.

In China, however, vast testing grounds like the Jiading and Xiongan districts are cropping up one after the other, and tests on public roads are also going forward all over the country. There is no doubt that this environment works greatly to the advantage of Chinese companies.

In 2009, China beat out the United States as the largest car market in the world, and it now boasts 1.7 times the new car sales in the U.S. Major U.S. consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that by 2030, China's autonomous vehicle market will also reach a scale of 500 billion dollars, roughly 57 trillion yen, and there is a high possibility that China will lead the global market for the technology.

The world's major manufacturers can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to China. Over 100 leading international companies including Honda Motor Co., BMW, and Microsoft Corp. have joined Baidu's "Apollo" development project for driverless vehicles. Making use of the know-how gathered from the Apollo project, Baidu has made concrete moves this year with major Chinese bus manufacturers to produce self-driving buses, and test runs in Xiongan New Area are in the works. Baidu Chairman Robin Li also sees the possibility of introducing such technologies for individual use within the next three to five years.

Traditionally, Japan, Europe and the United States have led the way in the high-tech field. However, with large company investments backed by a large consumer market and full support from the government, China is on the verge of bringing on a paradigm shift.

"The level of China's development is rapidly increasing," a top executive from a Japanese automaker said. "Competing with China's united public-private front is no easy task."

(Japanese original by Kiyohiro Akama, China General Bureau)

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