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Mapping out the road ahead for China’s autonomous vehicles

Mapping out the road ahead for China’s autonomous vehicles

Shanghai taxi driver Yuan Wei isn’t concerned about being replaced by autonomous vehicles (AVs). “No one will be able to afford an unmanned car,” he says. “It must be expensive. Maybe RMB 1 million (around $150,000) or RMB 2 million.” Yuan may be right about the price of a driverless car—at least given today’s technology—but the threat to his livelihood may be closer than it appears.

The middle-aged cabbie was driving around Anting Town, the hotbed for automobile innovation that lies 40 kilometers northwest of downtown Shanghai. In Anting, charging stations for electric vehicles line the streets and electric taxis seem to outnumber their gas-guzzling counterparts. As Yuan pulled over to pick me up, a sign overhead drew my attention: “Intelligent Connected Vehicle Test Road,” it read. Unbeknownst to Yuan, he had stumbled upon one of two government-approved testing areas for self-driving cars in the city.

“There are driverless cars here?” he asked later. “I haven’t seen any.”

China has set ambitious goals for AVs. By 2020, half of all new cars on the country’s roads are expected to be autonomous or semi-autonomous. For now, they’re still restricted to driving on designated roads, but that will change. The number of these vehicles is expected to reach 8.6 million by 2035.

Self-driving cars and several related industries are crucial to China’s long-term plan to upgrade its economy by shifting away from traditional manufacturing. But autonomous vehicles are especially important. Their success is underpinned by the country’s artificial intelligence (AI) prowess, for which the national government has set formidable goals. The State Council, China’s cabinet, wants to be a world leader in AI by 2030, making the country’s self-driving development even more pressing.

A number of forces are driving China to take the AV wheel faster than other countries, but widescale adoption […]

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