AVs in China
Autonomous driving China

What the world could learn from China’s autonomous vehicle innovations

Tuesday, 2 July 2024

The days when autonomous vehicles (AVs) seemed like a far-off dream, only possible in a futuristic world like The Jetsons, are long gone. Today, the idea of getting into a car with no human driver is no longer a distant fantasy. However, global adoption has been sporadic and fraught with challenges. Yet despite these hurdles, there are hotspots around the world – such as China - where autonomous vehicles are thriving. 

We sat down with Carlo van der Weijer, General Manager of the Eindhoven AI Systems Institute at the Eindhoven University of Technology, and Alwin Bakker, Director and Owner of the Future Mobility Network, to hear their thoughts on the mobility innovations they experienced during Intertraffic China 2024. 

Intertraffic: During the Intertraffic China week, you had the opportunity to discover the latest mobility innovations and solutions that Beijing had to offer. What did you make of it? 

Carlo van der Weijer (CvdW): They are clearly ahead in autonomous driving, potentially on par with Waymo and Cruise in California. Additionally, their autonomous delivery vans, which appear to be fully operational, have advanced much further than I anticipated.

Alwin Bakker (AB): During my visit to Intertraffic China, I was truly amazed by some of the innovations that seemed ahead of their time. One thing that really caught my eye was how Beijing seamlessly integrates mobility solutions within its broader smart city framework. Imagine a city where AI and big data aren't just buzzwords but actively control traffic signals, cutting down congestion and pollution in real-time.
Another standout was the robust EV infrastructure. Seeing Nio's battery swapping stations in action was like watching a futuristic pit stop—drivers can swap out their depleted batteries for fully charged ones in just a few minutes. This level of convenience isn't something I've seen in other markets.
The deployment of autonomous public transport was equally impressive. Experiencing Baidu's Apollo Go and Pony.ai’s autonomous taxis gave me a glimpse into a future where calling for a driverless ride could be the norm.

 

What can you find in China that isn’t (yet) available in other markets?

CvdW: I have the impression the China is indeed taking a unique approach to autonomous cars. They are leveraging extensive government support and strategic partnerships to accelerate development and deployment. Additionally, China's open data policies allow companies to access vast amounts of driving data for AI training. These factors collectively give China a distinct advantage in the autonomous vehicle industry.

Intertraffic: You also had the opportunity to visit and experience new tech from Pony.ai, Baidu and Nio. What were some of your key takeaways? What can the rest of the world learn from what they are doing?

AB: Visiting Pony.ai, Baidu, and Nio was an eye-opener. At Pony.ai, I was struck by their advancements in Level 4 autonomous driving. Watching their vehicles navigate complex urban environments with ease was a testament to how far AI and sensor technology have come. It’s one thing to read about these technologies but seeing them in action was something else entirely.
Baidu's Apollo platform was another highlight. Their comprehensive ecosystem supports a variety of applications, from taxis to delivery robots. What impressed me most was their open-source approach, fostering innovation and collaboration on a global scale. It made me think about the possibilities if more companies adopted such an inclusive model.
Nio's focus on the user experience was particularly refreshing. Their battery swapping technology is brilliant, but what stood out was their community-building efforts through Nio House centres. It felt less like visiting a car company and more like joining a vibrant community.

Intertraffic: In your expert opinion, is there demand in the rest of the world for the solutions you have just seen? Is that where the market is headed?

CvdW: Partially, yes. The speed of implementation in China is very impressive. It's not just that; the political decision-making processes are also less complex than in Europe or the US. Beyond that, there is a strong motivation to quickly improve mobility. We can learn a lot from them, but they can also learn from us. That's why it's so important that Intertraffic serves all continents. But it's not just the autonomous vehicles we should be looking at. If you see what Beijing has achieved in terms of bicycle usage, that has a much greater impact on improving mobility than these autonomous cars ever will.

AB: From what I saw, there's no doubt that the rest of the world could benefit from these Chinese innovations. Cities everywhere are grappling with congestion and pollution, and the smart traffic management systems and autonomous public transport solutions I experienced could be game changers.
The shift towards electric vehicles and automation isn't just a trend—it's a necessity driven by urbanization and environmental concerns. The global market is definitely moving in this direction, and the solutions I saw in China could lead the way.

Intertraffic: Looking just at Europe, do you think there is room in our current legislation for these new technologies? How does it work with our sustainability/ carbon reduction goals?

CvdW: For sustainability and carbon reduction goals, don't focus on autonomous vehicles—look at bicycles. In this area, there's much to learn from Europe, particularly the Netherlands. Legislating autonomous vehicles in Europe is challenging due to concerns over safety, liability issues, ethical considerations, and the complexity of harmonizing regulations across different member states. But the European union is trying to catch up. However, I think getting vehicles safer is a bigger priority than getting them driverless, which has a relation but is something fundamentally different.

AB: I think Europe's strong regulatory framework is both a challenge and an opportunity for these new technologies. The need to adapt regulations to accommodate autonomous vehicles and other innovations is crucial. From my perspective, this is a chance for Europe to lead by example, ensuring that new technologies meet high standards of safety and privacy.
The alignment with sustainability goals is particularly exciting. The push for EVs and smart traffic management fits perfectly with Europe's carbon reduction targets. Implementing these technologies could not only help meet these goals but also improve urban living conditions.

 

Intertraffic: And finally, is there another city or country that you have your eyes on to visit next? What do they have on offer? What are they doing differently that other markets can learn from? 

CvdW: More Chinese cities are of interest, but I am also curious on how for instance India approaches the mobility transition, it’s been a while since I have been there. But the transformation to more cycling is now happening very very fast all around the world with some cities like Paris, Valencia, Seville, Oslo and many more are now in that transition with a lot of success.

AB: As for where I’m looking to go next, Tokyo and Singapore are at the top of my list. Tokyo’s advanced public transport system and investment in robotics and AI for mobility are areas I’m eager to explore.
Singapore’s integration of data analytics and IoT in urban mobility management is another exciting prospect. Their approach to smart city planning is something I believe other cities can learn a lot from.