They’re electric, driverless and rarely drive while distracted or drowsy. That’s no small feat, but autonomous vehicle companies like China’s NIO Inc. are confident they will have this capability soon.
“Just about every Chinese company is testing an autonomous vehicle because the market is huge and it needs them to at least compete,” said Christopher Dewit, partner at the Shanghai office of Boston Consulting Group.
The technology is already affecting production. Cai Yongmei, head of China’s shared mobility startup Shizhou Sheng Guozhi, told Bloomberg last month that he canceled a trial of a driverless taxi service over concerns that the “autonomous car experience” wouldn’t be as pleasant as customers expected.
Car testing will likely continue in the country in 2019 as automakers continue developing these vehicles. Check out what else we know:
1. China is the epicenter of the world’s self-driving revolution
China has been home to most of the self-driving startups, with names like Baidu, UC Transportation, Lingwo — which is now owned by Ford — and NIO. The U.S. pioneered these technologies during the Apollo Moon Program, but did little to commercialize them, right up until the Uber, Lyft and Waymo acquisitions in late 2017. Now it looks like companies from Silicon Valley are taking a keen interest in China, and scientists from U.S. universities are finding lucrative jobs in the country.
2. They’re projected to have a bigger footprint than the U.S.
When we predicted that China would dominate the autonomous car market, we weren’t quite prepared for where the autonomous vehicle technology would ultimately land. A report from IHS Markit predicts that China will install more cars with advanced driver assistance technologies than the U.S. by 2025. China might even surpass the U.S. within a few years, since some experts believe it could take eight years for the technology to fully mature.
3. Will you ever see them on U.S. roads?
While all three leading players — Alphabet’s Waymo, Uber and Lyft — are investing heavily in driverless cars, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sounded a cautious note in August about making commercial autonomous vehicles. He worried about continuing to research and develop driverless cars without knowing what to do with them once they’re on the road. “We don’t want to just be on the sidelines saying we should have a self-driving car,” he said.
4. China is taking the lead on self-driving tech
In August, China’s NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission) said its robotaxis could use only those with “commuter mode” software, which excludes software in autonomous cars that detect pedestrians. It aims to launch driverless vehicles by 2020, according to the report.
5. We might never really get a glimpse into the future
All of this car technology hasn’t necessarily translated into cars that resemble what we have today. Some of the startups and startups in China, like Leichi, have achieved commercial prototyping with concepts that look very different from what you see in reality. Leichi’s Zuko bicycle is a lightweight electric, electric-assisted bicycle with a half-length wheel at its center — not unlike what you’d see on your local bicycle store’s shelf. The bicycle seats four, can ride 100 km/h (62 mph) and has a range of up to 40 km (25 miles).