Chongqing layers tech on auto tradition

5 min read
Rivers—and constant construction—define Chongqing’s character. (Image credit: Technode/David Cohen)

I’ve traveled to all sorts of cities in China. Some are charming like Yangshou, intimidating like Beijing, extravagant like Shanghai, ahead of the curve like Shenzhen, but Chongqing deserves a category of its own. It’s just bold. As the city bids for national leadership in self-driving cars and smart city applications, it projects a phlegmatic confidence and commitment to growth no matter what.

A Chongqing conference in which I participated on April 27 shows the city’s boldness. It was the launch event of China’s first autonomous police car, developed by Aimo, an ambitious Hong Kong startup now headquartered in the city. At first glance, the vehicle is almost too cute—it’s about a sixth of the size of a sedan—but it is capable of what it is designed for.

Dozens of these autonomous police cars are supposed to patrol otherwise difficult-to-reach areas of the city between midnight and 5 a.m. They have ultrasonic sensors, 5G connections, LIDAR, cameras, built-in AI, facial recognition (of course), microphones, loudspeakers, police lights, and an emergency button for citizens in need of help. The car travels at a very low speed, as it is designated to patrol in bicycle and emergency lanes in the pilot period, but is capable of accelerating up to 80 kilometers per hour. One might say it is a connected CCTV on wheels.

Aimo’s autonomous police car; author included for scale (Image credit: Tony Verb)

I like the car. L5 autonomous driving, which is still facing regulatory scrutiny all over the world, badly needs use cases that make sense. For an under-patrolled, chaotic, and enormous city that until recently was known to be plagued by criminal gangs, a vehicle that can bring a sense of security to citizens during the night in a controlled lane and at a controlled speed is a perfect use case.

And I like Chongqing. It happens to be the starting point of the China-Europe Railway and is one of only four provincial-level cities in China, alongside Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. In other words, local leaders deal directly with the central government without the provincial layer. This gives the city officials a certain freedom in setting their own direction as they pursue their two main ambitions: 1) urbanize 2) move up the value chain.

These ambitions require the smart infrastructure of a connected city, the deployment of 5G, and the training of personnel. All that can accommodate more innovation, more products, and more services that are synergistic, ultimately building an ecosystem that Chongqing currently lacks. The city has traditionally been a production hub that applied but did not develop technology. As a consequence, the World Bank has found, the city does not have a sufficiently skilled workforce, nor enough of the universities and institutions that are a prerequisite to one.

Just like any city, to move up the value chain Chongqing needs anchor projects that can propel further innovation. The city has been renowned mainly for heavy industry.  To build a city for the future, urban planners and local authorities must go through a shift in mindset. When the legacy of the old economy is as strong as in Chongqing, it is even harder.

Urbanization is already well underway. On most rankings, Chongqing is listed as one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 30.5 million people, though that number is rather misleading. Most of its population still lives in rural areas within the municipal boundaries, which comprise more than 80,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of Austria. But both central government and local leadership are aligned on plans to turn rural people into urban residents.

This process has propelled Chongqing to top lists measuring the pace of urbanization over the past decade. In 2015, more than 1,300 people moved into the city per day. To facilitate and accommodate the surge in population and commercial activities, the local government allocated more than RMB 1.2 trillion (about $170 billion) for infrastructure investment. Between now and 2025, more than 350 kilometers of metro, elevated rail, and light rail will be added to the current 310.

Chongqing stands out for sheer scale, but the themes are familiar from other Chinese cities. It’s just like them, only more so. The same applies to its ambitions to move up the value chain, to digitize its economy, and to upgrade from heavy industries to high tech. Because the city has been an automotive powerhouse, local government is set on leveraging this asset by pushing autonomous driving as a strategic sector. With the largest vehicle production output and highest number of carmakers in China, it is in a good starting position.

The local government allowed road testing of autonomous vehicles, introduced related regulations accordingly, and opened testing facilities early last year. The city’s mountainous landscape, foggy nature, and diverse infrastructure—tunnels, ramps, and bridges—make it an ideal place for testing. The city is committed to building the necessary smart infrastructure, enabling 5G connectivity. Aimo chose Chongqing as its headquarters for many of those reasons, as well as for the presence of supporting industries and potential partners. Big data and cloud computing are also identified as strategic areas; the city has made significant deals with the likes of Japan’s NEC and Alibaba.

Besides government efforts, local carmaker giant Changan Automobiles is just as serious about autonomous vehicles. It’s been conducting research in the field since 2010, working with partners like Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, and Bosch. Changan also completed China’s first long-distance autonomous journey back in 2016, sending two cars 2,000 km from Chongqing to Beijing.

Chongqing is trying to become the smartest city in the region and increase its R&D spending share compared to GDP, a metric that clearly defines a city’s potential to innovate. There is still a lot of work to do. While the ratios are 5.9%, 4.1%, and 3.8% percent for Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai, respectively, it remains below 2% for Chongqing. According to World Bank metrics, this signals weak innovation potential. But Chongqing is trying hard to boost R&D spending, and every other day brings news of companies moving into the city and investments made.

There is enormous competition amongst Chinese cities to be smarter and more innovative. Chongqing is starting from a low base with a heavy challenge from aging and overwhelmed infrastructure. A dark horse the city may be, but I have a good feeling that it will, over the years, become both a smart city and a hub of autonomous driving.

If you are a startup, entrepreneur, PhD, or a corporate executive with expertise in autonomous vehicles or smart city applications, put this city on your list. In Chongqing there is the will, there is the industry, there is government support, and there is an increasing amount of private capital. It might be just the perfect storm for the future of mobility in China.