China's push for driverless cars accelerates

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Media captionCould driverless cars appear sooner than you think?

In the race for driverless car technology, Chinese companies are taking big strides competing with the likes of Google and Tesla.

With the Beijing Motor Show under way, the days when the country's domestic car firms was brushed off as mere copycats are well and truly over.

And a lot of this year's buzz is around driverless cars in particular.

In past years, innovation might have come from Silicon valley, but Chinese companies are pushing ahead.

"There is a lot more going on in China than many in the West have realised," car expert Prof David Bailey of the Aston Business School tells the BBC.

Who are the big players?

  • Changan: Two driverless cars drove more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) from its headquarters to Beijing using cameras and radar to complete the trip in six days - the car firm says it was able to do research on lane-keeping and changing, traffic sign recognition, automatic cruising and voice control.
  • Baidu and BMW: A cooperation between Chinese tech giant Baidu and German car maker BMW saw a driverless car drive 30km through Beijing traffic, managing a range of manoeuvres, including U-turns, lane changes and merging into traffic from ramps.
  • Geely and Volvo: Chinese owned Swedish car maker Volvo says it plans to test 100 driverless cars on public roads in "everyday conditions". It is thought to be a significant move to establish the Sino-Swedish team at the forefront of development. Volvo is also testing driverless cars in Sweden and the UK.
Image copyright Baidu
Image caption Baidu has been developing an artificial intelligence system to help its driverless cars navigate

In addition to these main players there are many others vying for attention. Research in China takes place in car companies, tech firms and at universities.

Last week, entertainment company LeEco made a big splash presenting its concept car LeSee, which at least in the presentation impressed with wide-ranging capabilities.

The company is also investing in the US electric car start-up, Faraday Future, and and is cooperating with legendary British Aston Martin on an electric car project.

How soon is now?

So when will it be normal to have a driverless car pull up next to you at the traffic light? "We are probably still one decade away from that," says Prof Bailey.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The cars are packed with cameras and radars

Yet Changan, Baidu and Geely are right in the midst of research and development, eager to get there ahead of Silicon Valley.

"Both in China as well as in the West this will be a technology that will creep up on us," he adds.

Just think of the many driver assistance technologies that we already have. Cars help you stay in lane, park themselves or detect when they should brake.

"Over time, we'll see a lot more of these features in cars and eventually that will lead to a driverless car," he says.

How driverless is 'driverless'?

Given that it is a new technology, even definitions are still in the making. Authorities in the US have proposed a classification of levels 0 to 4.

  • Level 0, no automation: All the driving and and features are down to you.
  • Level 1, function-specific automation: One or more features are automated, such as electronic stability control.
  • Level 2, combined function automation: At least two automated features work together, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centring.
  • Level 3, limited self-driving: The car does all the driving "under certain traffic conditions", the driver is only needed for "occasional control", which is what the Google car and Chinese projects are aiming for.
  • Level 4, full self-driving: The car does all the driving for the entire trip, it doesn't even need a driver to be in the car anymore.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Trailing the rear lights of a Chinese model soon?

Who will take the lead?

Obviously a tough question to answer - but there's a lot to suggest that Chinese companies do not intend to come second.

The tests and trials that are being conducted are very extensive and the experimentation and learning process will be crucial to progress in the field.

But still, it is the US where the technology was pioneered and where a lot of the past innovation has come from.

"The heart and centre of the innovation lies in Silicon Valley," industry expert Prof Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer told the BBC from this year's Chinese-German Car Symposium conference in Beijing.

"Silicon Valley is where the automated car will come from."

Yet public attitudes to driverless vehicles are a lot more favourable in China than elsewhere.

And the fact that research into the new technology has the backing and support from the government in Beijing might also prove to be a decisive factor.

"So if we see this happen in China, it will probably happen on quite a big scale," says Prof David Bailey.

Motivated by the widespread pollution problems, Beijing has pushed for more electric vehicles and Chinese car makers have responded significantly.

It's quite possible that Google might just find itself trailing the rear lights of a Baidu, Geely or Changan car.

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