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Going driverless out east

Jonathan Spear | 23 Sep 2015 | Comments

Whilst the UK is in a leading competitive position to support Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology development and testing, others across the world are not standing still. In Asia, Japan’s Nissan has set 2020 as the target year to have fully self-driving AVs available on the market, subject to regulatory approval. South Korea’s Hyundai is aiming for a step change in driver assistance systems from 2020 and commercialised applications of full driverless automation by 2030.

Two other countries, China and Singapore, are emerging as key players, both for production capability and early deployment at the city level to address transport and mobility challenges.

Baidu, the owner of China’s largest internet search engine, has in recent years carried out research into automated cars, working with auto manufacturers to test integration of hardware, sensors, control systems and software. The company is providing the city maps and cloud storage systems which cars will use in order to navigate. To date, testing has been largely confined to simulators and the laboratory, but it is understood may shift to a road-ready prototype onto the streets of Beijing by the end of 2015.

Baidu’s initiative is one of a number by Chinese companies, encouraged by the Government which is keen to see collaboration between auto makers and technology developers in such areas as navigation, systems automation and electric propulsion. Alongside Baidu, Leshi, a manufacturer of web-enabled TVs, has indicated its plans to invest in the development of a connected electric car as part of its wider diversification strategy; Alibaba, an e-commerce-firm has announced a fund to promote internet-enabled automobile technology in collaboration with SAIC Motor, and more are expected to follow.

Interestingly, Baidu’s approach differs from the approach taken by its US counterpart, Google, in purposefully not aiming to design a full-driverless car from scratch. Instead, the company sees the way forward as increasing levels of intelligent assistance to the driver and providing optional autonomy only when it is desired or needed. Hence, new cars will continue to have manual controls, and in the view of many, the role of the person in the driver’s seat will shift from that of an ‘active driver’ to that of a ‘supervisor’ who must be able to intervene or resume control whenever necessary. This different approach may make it easier for consumers to adapt to, and for public regulators to test and accept AV technology over time and license it for mainstream deployment within prevailing traffic laws and regulations.

China is seen by some as a more open market than the USA or Europe for the early AV adoption. This is not only down to the size of its domestic market and manufacturing capability, but also because of a perceived looser regulatory environment and less litigious track-record in the event of product faults, recalls or accidents. China’s poor road safety record and the strong interest in technology amongst consumers are also seen as making the market attractive for early adoption.

Elsewhere in Asia, the city state of Singapore has recognised the potential benefits from AVs working alongside traditional public transport. The opportunity for such vehicles to bridge first- and last-mile connections, particularly for the elderly and disabled, is seen as a strong benefit. Additionally, the prospect that AVs may reduce car ownership levels – as users share access to common vehicles – is held as an opportunity for urban mobility and land use planning in a city long regarded as “best in class” for its integrated transport policies, delivery and outcomes.

In August 2014, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that it was setting up the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (SAVI), to oversee and manage AV research, test-bedding and the development of applications by industry partners and stakeholders. It has now issued a Request for Information and will shortly assess the potential of proposals from manufacturers to test AV concepts in the One-North, a business park in Jurong, including demand-responsive vehicles and mass-transit operating on fixed routes and scheduled timings. Third-parties wishing to test their AVs must have safety procedures including immediate manual override as well as third party insurance, with much of the LTA Guidance matching the UK Code of Conduct for Testing of Driverless Cars, published in July 2015.

Several other AV trials are currently underway in Singapore, including SCOT, a low cost AV which has been jointly developed by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SCOT was originally deployed on the NUS campus in 2011, with the first prototype being an adapted golf buggy. The latest version of SCOT is an adapted Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which uses LADAR sensors to navigate through an environment and is also able to drive through tunnels and other places where a GPS signal would normally be hindered.

These trials are particularly interesting since Singapore is of a scale, has a dynamic and technology-orientated Government and population, and a world-class track record in urban mobility planning that may enable proof-of-concept, operational applications and widespread AV deployment earlier than many other countries. SAVI is interested in the technical and statutory requirements underpinning such developments and keen to ensure Singapore reaps the full benefits that technology can offer.

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