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June 8, 2016

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Autonomous connected cars on their way

EDITOR’S note:

INTERNET Plus, a concept highlighted in the government work report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the annual session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March, is pushing the boundaries of China’s traditional industries. Nowadays, enterprises across the country are embracing changes by incorporating advancements in the Internet and related technologies into their business models. In a series by Shanghai Daily, we explore how this concept is reshaping our world.

AUTONOMOUS connected cars are on their way to make intelligent transportation a dream come true for Shanghai residents but they are still a long way off before they actually hit the real roads from a sandbox.

As the first step towards the city’s plan of filling a 100 square kilometer area with highly automated cars in three to five years, the National Intelligent Connected Vehicle (Shanghai) Pilot Zone yesterday invited reporters to an enclosed testing demonstration base — the first of its kind in China.

Loaded with various sensors, communication modules and electronic control units, the first batch of 25 self-driving cars set off on a journey of getting “street smart” in a 5 square kilometer area at Shanghai Auto Expo Park and Tongji University.

The trail blazers included Ford Transit, Chang’an CS75, Volvo XC90, Cadillac ATS-L, Roewe e50, Volkswagen Golf, and Range Rover Evoque. Foreign and domestic carmakers and technology suppliers sat behind the wheels as monitors. They were joined by experts from Chinese academic institutes like Tsinghua University, Tongji University and Shanghai Advanced Research Institute Chinese Academy of Science.

The country has just made “intelligent connected cars” a key direction of its 2025 roadmap to manufacturing upgrades. And this project called “a nice city” is set to take off in Jiading District, home to nearly 70 percent of the city’s car manufacturing, and 80 percent automotive research and development.

Open platform

The test demonstration base was run like a virtual city for cars, though at this stage it was much smaller than the 32-acre Mcity set up in Michigan, the auto hub of US, and the industry’s first.

“The driving situation in China is complicated. If an autonomous car can survive here, it will surely do well in the US but not necessarily the other way around. It is a challenge as well as an advantage to come up with better products,” said Rong Wenwei, general manager of Shanghai International Automobile City that oversees the pilot zone.

“In Jiading, we want to build an open platform for all industry players to carry out their own tests.”

At the first phase of the experiment, test cars will go through 29 challenges that simulate complex driving scenarios, with the help of its own artificial intelligence and special communication tools.

From intersections where traffic flow is complicated and mixed, to tunnels and boulevards where signals can get blocked, and to parking lots and electric charging spots that need real-time availability updates, cars will learn to understand and adapt to the environment information picked up by their own sensors and GPS, as well as given by infrastructure and shared between each other on a dedicated data exchange platform called V2X.

Together they will make a highly cooperative self-driving transportation system where even traffic lights and road signs can take initiatives to give cars the heads-up. Such team spirit is believed to give the system much more clairvoyance than mass deployment of sensor-based advanced driver assistance technology (ADAS) that focuses on every single car’s ability to think and act like a human driver.

The latter is the current focus of many carmakers’ research and development of autonomous vehicles and their commercialization since it is by comparison a much easier standalone project. The V2X application, which makes sense only when a large volume of cars are put on the same channel along with public facilities, is expected as a very visionary and faraway accomplishment.

While the US is taking the lead in making the equipment of V2X communication chips compulsory for cars as early as 2019, China’s national standard for V2X technologies has long been absent.

Fu Yuwu, executive vice president of Society of Automotive Engineers China, said China will release its own roadmap for intelligent connected cars next month, and start its drafting of related standards first for active safety applications.

“An intelligent car cannot work without an intelligent transportation system for a safer, greener, more comfortable and efficient journey. But unfortunately in China the two studies are often separate,” said Li Keqiang, key advisor to China’s official roadmap to autonomous driving and automotive professor at Tsinghua University.

Only by fitting itself in the big picture of traffic can a car know how to change gear and plan fuel consumption by itself for higher economic performance. The test field will experiment with a green traffic belt that flows smoothly through traffic light changes without unnecessary braking and acceleration.

Holistic approach

And only by taking a holistic approach to predict environments beyond the sight of its artificial eyes can a smart connected car shorten its reaction time in an emergency situation where a fleeting second is a life-and-death matter. Safety issues, as a key focus of study at Shanghai’s test field, now account for 19 of its 29 simulated scenes.

The complex encounters for test cars to face will be further diversified to 50 later this year to cover all the urban, rural and highway scenarios, and even grow over 100 to pave the way to much more ambitious tests in the next five years.

According to a blue print rolled out for the pilot zone, the test field will be extended this September to 27 square kilometers. Up to 1,000 test cars are expected to have some real-world experience in the core area of Anting Shanghai International Automobile City by the end of the year.

From 2018 to 2019, the expansion will cover the entire Anting Town, deploying a fleet of 5,000 automated cars in a 100 square kilometer area that includes highways. At the final stage till 2020, corridors with demonstration effect will be built up to connect Anting with Hongqiao Transportation Hub, with 10,000 self-driving cars running on 500 kilometers long roads.

Xie Fei, deputy general manager of China Automotive Engineering Research Institute, said China’s advanced communication infrastructure, with its 5G era coming at the same pace as overseas highly developed markets, empowers the local auto industry to play some serious catch-up in the area of autonomous cars.

“Foreign carmakers have spent 30 years developing advanced driver assistance technologies, while we as a late starter have little such know-how of our own. But with V2X technologies on board, we can navigate to a highly automated future in a much more independent way,” Xie said.

Shanghai’s test demonstration zone will experiment with two mainstream V2X communication technologies, DSRC and LTE-V.

The first, which has been standardized by the US, responds fast, while the second, favored by China, features longer effective range, making the two highly complementary. And the gap between their response times will be narrowed to a point of being dismissible by the wide application of 5G, said Rong of Shanghai International Automobile City.


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