science

Self-driving service helps forge "City of Intelligent Driving"

A white car parked on a wide street in Changsha, capital of central China’s Hunan Province, awaits passengers. However, there’s something unusual about this usual-looking taxi — it has no “driver.”

Changsha became the first in the country to roll out the self-driving taxi service for the public in April.

Though the service is currently limited to a selected region in the city, covering residential communities, commercial areas and industrial parks, Changsha has been dubbed as “City of Intelligent Driving” for unveiling the cutting-edge tech for public use.

The driverless cars, named Robotaxis, have been co-produced by Chinese search provider and artificial intelligence (AI) heavyweight Baidu and Chinese carmaker FAW Hongqi, and operated by Hunan Apollo Intelligent Transportation (Hunan Apollo) based in the city’s Xiangjiang New Area. Users can hail the taxis using Baidu Map, a mobile navigation app.

The driver’s seat is not exactly empty but occupied by “safety personnel.” “During the self-driving mode, I do not need to control the steering wheel unless there is an emergency,” said Cao Jiajie, a technician with Hunan Apollo.

“The touchscreen in the car identifies obstacles and makes dynamic predictions within the 360-degree field of vision and displays the road conditions of passing vehicles, lanes, intersections and traffic lights,” said Cheng Li, director of the company’s testing and vehicle operation department.

The city has been a trial ground for several categories of smart vehicles, including self-driving buses running on China’s first open-road smart bus demonstration line, according to a spokesperson with Xiangjiang Smart Tech Innovation Center.

The smart bus demonstration line, built by Xiangjiang New Area, is 7.8 km long. It has 22 stops in both directions along the way and has been in safe operation for two years.

The throttle, brake, steering wheel and gear lever in these autonomous vehicles are all managed by computers, allowing the “driver” to keep a better eye during test drives, according to He Jiancheng, one of the safety personnel.

“My main task is to deal with any unpredictable situations that the car may encounter,” he said.

Based on their automated level, the intelligent driving technology at home and abroad is placed under five categories starting from L1-L5. The self-driving taxis and buses plying on Changsha roads belong to L4 and L3, respectively, namely “highly automated level” and “conditional automated level.”

Although China is a latecomer to the self-driving sector, ambitious plans from technology giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent as well as startups like Pony.ai have jump-started the industry.

According to the Autonomous Vehicle Disengagement Reports 2019 issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Baidu’s self-driving cars top the list of “Miles per Intervention,” with four other Chinese companies placed in the top 10.

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