The future of mobility isn’t just autonomous vehicles, it’s smart infrastructure

China is trying to become an innovation hub in the autonomous vehicle sector—it is currently working on a draft bill mandating that 50% of all vehicles sold by 2020 be autonomous or semi-autonomous. Cities across China have opened up their roads for testing autonomous vehicles (AVs), with localities including Shanghai, Chongqing, Beijing, and Shenzhen setting up designated pilot areas.

China’s big three tech giants—Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—are all competing for dominance in the self-driving space. Additionally, startups looking to develop their own self-driving platforms have sprung up. While all of the nascent frameworks are highly disparate, they all require on-vehicle sensors.

However, Wang Gang, chief scientist at Alibaba AI Labs, believes the future lies not in cars being equipped with sensors, but the roads themselves becoming active participants in the sensing process.

Wang says on-vehicle sensors have restrictions. “There [may be] some obstacles that are blocking your vision,” said Wang at Alibaba’s Cloud Computing Conference in Hangzhou today (September 20).

“There may be blind stops. Some obstacles on the road may not be visible.” These limitations, created due to sensor placement, could create serious safety issues, he says.

In addition to safety issues, cost is also a concern. Usually, individual vehicles need to be equipped with image sensors in the form of cameras with a 360-degree field of view, radar, and LiDAR, which measures distances to moving and stationary vehicles. As a result, Wang says that AVs are prohibitively expensive, costing up to $200,000.

Autonomous vehicles are coming but you won’t own one

He says the answer is smart infrastructure, a system that uses “coordinated intelligence” to give a broader view of conditions on the road, with sensors, as well as vehicles, being connected. He explains that sensors can be placed in elevated positions above roadways, with cars and sensors forming a network to improve road safety. Because the sensors are stationary, they can “more accurately sense what is happening” on the roads, according to Wang.

“Even if it is static, it can know what is happening kilometers away,” he said.

Alibaba has already begun developing such a system. It has created “perception stations” that can be mounted above roads to provide sensing capabilities vehicles below. The platform, dubbed Cooperative Vehicle-Infrastructure Systems (CVIS ), aims to create a system like the one Wang proselytizes.