In Beijing, a young car culture is going through teething pains. The pressure of urban density, in combination with growing demand for personal transportation in an ever-more-affluent city, has the capital of the People’s Republic aching for relief.
It’s thus no wonder that a generation of Chinese people see driving as a pain. Unlike car culture in the United States, which came of age during a romantic period of road trips, China’s car culture has come of age in a period of congestion.
China’s next great leap in transportation cannot come soon enough, not only as a matter of commuter convenience, but as a matter of necessity. Ring roads and surface streets flush with cars at all hours have become the bustling capital’s economic choke point. A 2014 study by Peking University estimated that congestion is costing Beijing alone roughly $11.3 billion per year. More importantly, the World Health Organization estimates that 200,000 people are killed in China in road accidents every year.
The Chinese government – specifically, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology – is keenly aware of these issues. To its credit, it believes autonomous vehicles will be an essential part of the solution. The ministry has signaled that it intends to mandate a series of technical and development benchmarks that are to be reached by certain dates.
Li Keqiang, an automotive engineering professor at Tsinghua University who is affiliated with the ministry, has received wide coverage for his claim that a draft roadmap for the introduction of self-driving cars for highway use within three to five years, and autonomous urban use by 2025, is likely to be released later this year.
A series of international conferences have been held in China this year already to discuss the country’s approach to autonomous vehicles. In April, Beijing hosted a conference of industry CEOs, an international auto show and the Global Smart Car Summit at the Global Mobile Internet Conference. The stakeholders in attendance are keenly aware that while developments will be made in the private sector, China’s regulation of autonomous vehicles is a matter of central planning.
Unlike the United States, where authority over autonomous vehicle development and standards is split between the states and the federal government, China’s industry enjoys the benefits of broad-scale coordination. In the near term, this will likely mean that China will not suffer through the same regulatory frustration that will slow the rollout of similar technology here.
What’s more, China has pent-up demand for new vehicles and the ability and will to undertake large infrastructure projects. While U.S. regulators are pursing unrealistically onerous safety standards that could actually stunt widespread adopting of the technology, China is approaching safety as a relative matter. So long as an autonomous vehicle is safer than a traditionally directed vehicle, the Chinese government appears satisfied.
But in the long term, in the event that technical coordination becomes too granular, China could face a Minitel-like disaster of hitherto unknown proportions. The way that China can avoid such an outcome will be to embrace the raft of foreign firms with expertise in the field that are increasingly frustrated by the obstacles presented to them in the United States. Doing so will mean taking the hard step of moving away from mandated domestic communications monopolies (like Chinese firm BeiDou on satellite navigation), but the technical benefits of such a development likely would be tremendous.
To be clear, centrally planning regulatory liberalization is hardly ideal. But given the political realities that prevail in China, in the case of autonomous-vehicle development, it stands to bring a world of good to the Middle Kingdom.