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  • Kyle Chua

China Now Allows Registered Driverless Cars on the Road

The futuristic vision of being able to ride a fully autonomous vehicle (AV) is slowly becoming a reality – at least that's what seems to be happening in Shenzhen, China.

Autonomous vehicle operating in Shenzhen. Credit: Xinhua

The metropolitan tech hub now allows AVs to operate without a driver in the driver’s seat, granted they can abide by the newly enforced regulations, as Reuters reports.

The regulations stipulate that for the vehicle to run, it must be registered with the local government. There are certain roads designated by the traffic management department where these vehicles can operate. A driver must also be present in the vehicle even if they’re not driving.

While AVs aren't new to Chinese cities, they've always operated on a limited scale under the supervision and watchful care of local authorities. But Shenzhen is now providing what's seen as the clearest regulations for AVs yet, providing a framework for liability in case of an accident.

For example, if the AV has a driver behind the wheel, it will be the driver who will be liable in an accident. If the AV is driverless, on the other hand, it will be the owner of the vehicle who will be liable. Meanwhile, if an accident is caused by some defect, say, a software error, the vehicle owner can demand compensation from the manufacturer.

Credit: Xinhua

Shenzhen-based AV startup DeepRoute on Monday, 1 August, the same day the regulations were announced, conducted road testing in the downtown area of the southeastern Chinese city. One of the company's AVs reportedly completed a 9.6km trip in about half an hour.

"If you want more cars, eventually there will be accidents, so these regulations are very important for mass deployment," said DeepRoute CEO Maxwell Zhou. "This is not true driverless but it's a big milestone."

He said the new regulations also help AV manufacturers improve their technology as they continue to push for the commercialisation of such vehicles.

AVs are able to operate independently of human drivers thanks to the combination of complex systems of sensors and artificial intelligence (AI) software. The former essentially monitors the surroundings of the vehicle, while the latter sends the instructions on how to navigate around them.

China is ramping up efforts in the development and deployment of AVs as it continues to engage in a technological arms race with the U.S. AVs are said to be a key area in Beijing's five-year technological roadmap, with Shenzhen, in particular, pushing the industry to reach revenues of up to 200 billion yuan by 2025.

The goal of DeepRoute, for instance, is to have 1,000 AV taxis with safety drivers on Shenzhen's roads in the next few years, around the same time when more detailed regulations are expected to be enforced. But for its business to be sustainable, production costs for AVs must go down. This is why it plans to bank on mass production to minimise costs and gather user data to power its technologies at the same time.

  • Shenzhen, one of the most populous cities in China, now allows AVs to operate without a driver in the driver’s seat, granted they can abide by the newly enforced regulations.

  • The regulations stipulate that AVs can only operate on certain roads designated by the traffic management department.

  • A driver must be present in the vehicle even if they’re not driving.

  • The new regulations also provide a framework for liability in case of an accident.

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