What if there was a way to deploy autonomous vehicles prior to technological perfection? China may have found a way: build environments where AVs can operate separate from everything else. In this case, the key to success is infrastructure rather than technology.

On the one hand, AVs are not so complicated; OEMs simply bring together various hardware, software, mechanical and other technologies and make them work together. In the words of one industry executive, “It’s relatively easy to manually convert today’s automobile into tomorrow’s AV.” Indeed, universities regularly host competitions, pitting teams against each other to do just this. “The problem,” my interlocutor continues, “is how AVs behave when they are surrounded by less intelligent vehicles as well pedestrians, cyclists and so on.”

The Society of Automotive Engineers lists six levels of driving automation: Level 0 through to Level 5. For Level 0 vehicles, a human must constantly supervise and control the vehicle at all times and in all conditions; any technologies present are purely supportive and only provide warnings or momentary support (e.g. blind spot warnings). At the other end of the spectrum, for Level 5 vehicles, a human does not need to do anything; the vehicle can drive itself under all conditions and in any circumstance.

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Sacha Cody

Sacha Cody is a business consultant and China Studies scholar. He lived in China for 15 years and currently resides in Melbourne, Australia. He can be found on the web at http://sachacody.info.