SHANGHAI – In Shanghai, guinea pig customers fearlessly sit in the back of a driverless taxi they ordered online. Local self-driving car giants are trying to generalize this futuristic technology to Chinese keen on ‘innovation.
Streets overrun with cars driving without human intervention? This scene worthy of a sci-fi movie is still a long way off. Especially for technological, regulatory and security reasons.
But amid a strong Beijing-Washington technological rivalry. Major Chinese tech players have launched autonomous vehicle projects in several cities – like their American counterparts.
Among them, Baidu (owner of the most popular search engine in China). DiDi Chuxing (passenger vehicles with driver) or even AutoX (supported by the local e-commerce giant Alibaba).
AutoX CEO Xiao Jianxiong even says he wants to launch his first fully autonomous vehicle on the road before the end of the year.
In the Chinese economic capital of nearly 25 million inhabitants, the “robotaxis” launched in June by DiDi Chuxing (the “Chinese Uber”) are already attracting many users eager to test the device.
Using an app, they indicate the route they want to take. They are then picked up by a brand new Volvo loaded with electronics and topped with a spinning radar.
Sign on the still experimental side of the service. An employee occupies the driver’s seat. Ready to take the wheel in case of the unexpected
But not enough to cool Da Xuan, a social network employee, who decided to give herself a taste of the future.
“Companies like Uber or Tesla are doing autonomous driving. So I was curious to see where the Chinese companies are at, ”she explains.
“Everything went off without a hitch,” she said, adding that she felt safe in this type of vehicle.
The only constraint for users: the desired route must for the moment be confined within a well-defined perimeter, located in the suburbs of Shanghai.
In the sometimes anarchic atmosphere of the Chinese street. The vehicle accelerates, brakes and takes turns with confidence. “Your car has been disinfected”, “we are yielding the right of way to pedestrians”, announces as the journey goes a soft female voice diffused in the cabin.
When a truck driving in front of the Volvo suddenly swerves, the artificial intelligence brakes the vehicle brilliantly and smoothly.
However, the system still needs breaking in. At a stop sign, the braking is so sudden that the passengers are thrown slightly forward. And any deviation from the planned route requires human intervention.
But Meng Xing, general manager of autonomous driving at DiDi Chuxing. Assures him: artificial intelligence “is already developed enough to handle most situations on its own” without having to touch the steering wheel or the brakes.
Elon Musk, the whimsical boss of Tesla, assured in early July. That the American electric vehicle maker would manage to develop a fully autonomous car this year. An assertion questioned by many analysts.
According to Paul Lewis, research manager at the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based nonprofit, the meters are “reset” in terms of expectations.
“Engineers are starting to realize the limits of artificial intelligence” and there is “a long way to go” before we can produce a fully autonomous car.
But AutoX’s Xiao Jianxiong is aiming for a “significant” deployment of vehicles within two or three years, despite regulatory and technological hurdles.
“It’s a matter of time and effort. But it will come, ”he says.
For its part, Baidu is planning self-driving car test centers in a dozen cities in China, including Beijing. The company is also testing a fleet of 45 taxis in Changsha (center).
Despite the persistent vagueness over this technology. DiDi Chuxing is thinking big: an executive in the VTC company said in June that he wanted to manage a million autonomous vehicles by 2030.
“There are still 0.5% of problems to be solved. But we believe in the future. We will be able to provide a service that is safer than that of a human driver. ”