China drafts guidelines for AV security, but challenges remain

4 min read
(Image credit: BigStock/Akarat Phasura)

Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is widely considered one of the next driving forces of global economic growth, and China doesn’t want to miss out.

The country aims to catch up to its rivals in the global race for intelligence supremacy, releasing the nation’s first guidelines for information security of intelligent connected vehicles (ICV) in Shanghai this week.

The specifications aim to minimize safety risks, including those posed by hackers and viruses that affect both data centers and vehicle software. The guidelines also place an emphasis on the evaluation of a vehicle’s telematics box, an onboard system tracks a vehicle’s position on the road, and in-vehicle infotainment platforms. Vehicles will be evaluated in terms of information security in a host of areas, including network infrastructure, applications, and equipment.

The draft specifications were co-authored by artificial intelligence and search giant Baidu, state-owned automaker FAW, Ford China, and Tsinghua University. The drafting process was overseen by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM).

The government-led association encouraged original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), as well as their suppliers, to report suggestions and feedback about the draft version before it releases the official document in the third quarter of this year.

In addition to the draft standards, AVs are now being tested on designated roads across 16 cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and China’s southwestern municipality of Chongqing.

But several challenges hinder efforts to increase ICV adoption, including slowly adapting traffic laws, and a lack of communication between government departments working independently to meet AV goals.

Xu Yanhua, vice secretary-general of CAAM said at CES Asia on Tuesday that China is developing intelligent connected vehicles to improve traffic safety and efficiency, as well as to increase environmental protection.

“Safety is the most important aspect,” Xu said, adding that information security is the top priority when developing ICVs.

Given the “terrifying “impact safety lapses could have if all vehicles are connected, Xu said that industry standards, rather than national rules, are more applicable to China at the current stage, as that the technology is continuously evolving.

Chinese business tycoons, including Baidu’s Robin Li and Li Shufu, chairman of automaker Geely, previously proposed measures to speed up the legislative process for AV adoption in China. So far, countries including the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, and at least 30 states across the US have passed or are passing laws opening public roads for AV testing.

Chinese government departments, including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and Ministry of Public Security, late last year pledged to accelerate amending traffic laws to establish a comprehensive legal framework with inclusive technical standards for research & development, testing, delivery, and public use of intelligent connected vehicles by 2025.

AV road tests

Beijing took a significant step forward in April 2018, issuing its first national guidelines that allow cities in China to test self-driving cars on their roads. Official records show that 35 companies across 16 cities were granted 109 licenses by April this year, as the country aims to compete with the US in the race for AV dominance. Nearly half of these licenses were obtained by Baidu.

However, the rules state that tests can take place only on prescribed roads and underscore that drivers must be ready to take over the car at any time. The lack of an explicit policy framework in terms of vehicle safety standards, including those for the key components such as user-interfaces, sensors, actuators, and software, slows AV development in the country.

According to China’s first annual autonomous driving test report co-released in April by three Beijing municipal government bodies, Chinese AV companies traveled more than 150,000 kilometers on the capital city’s roads in 2018. The report only used distance traveled as a measure, unlike California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which requires companies to report “disengagements,” the number of times human drivers are required to take control of the vehicle.

Despite being criticized for vagueness, the DMV disengagement report offers a barometer of the companies pushing the industry forward. A number of Chinese companies are included in the report, including Baidu and Pony.ai.

“It makes more sense to compare numbers such as mileage and miles per disengagement when companies conduct open road tests,” (our translation) Julian Ma, CEO of self-driving truck startup Inceptio Technology, said during an interview at CES Asia on Tuesday. Ma added that some Chinese cities might begin allowing companies to test driverless trucks on public roads in the next six months, and the company is considering revealing disengagement figures once that happens.

WeRide, a self-driving startup formerly known as JingChi, reported one disengagement for every 280 kilometers in 2018, according to the DMV report, ranking fourth among the six Chinese companies with test licenses in the US.

The company plans to test run 100 Level 4 semi-autonomous robotaxis in Anqing, a city in eastern China’s Anhui province by year-end. Baidu has partnered with the municipal government of Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province, to deploy a fleet of 100 autonomous taxis around the same time.

Nonetheless, China’s Waymo wannabes face a complicated regulatory environment, where multiple rules have been formulated almost independently by varying government agencies for the taxi industry, traffic management, and connected vehicles. The latest amendment to China’s road traffic safety law was back in 2011, two years before Baidu began incubating its AV project in 2013.

“To push forward the commercialization of autonomous vehicles in China, we expect some major achievements have to be made in terms of government regulation systems,” (our translation) Zhang Li, COO of WeRide said Wednesday in a panel discussion at CES.