China’s Changan Automobile on Tuesday unveiled its new flagship sedan with what it said was the country’s first mass-manufactured conditionally automated Level 3 system, as Chinese automakers ramp up to compete in the global self-driving race.

Why it matters: The development could be a prelude to mass deployment of highly automated cars on Chinese roads, but regulatory and technological hurdles remain.

  • Level 3 autonomy conditionally allows drivers to take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel at low speeds to focus on things other than driving, according to a rating from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Human intervention is still required.
  • Global automakers including Volvo and Ford have argued that the handover of vehicle control is unsafe if human driver vigilance lapses. Most companies had delayed plans to volume-produce L3 vehicles, Chinese media reported last year citing a Baidu executive.

Details: Chongqing-based Changan on Tuesday announced it has developed China’s first mass-production automobile to offer Level 3 autonomy under conditions including highway driving and traffic congestion. The sedan will go on sale in June.

  • Named UNI-T, the four-door sedan features an in-house developed computer that can process live feeds from 12 ultrasonic radars, six cameras, and five millimeter-wave radars to detect other road agents and plan its path.
  • Traveling at a top speed of 40 kilometers or 25 miles per hour, a driver can take his hands, feet, and eyes off of driving controls for a “long time” on congested highways and freeways when, for example, using a phone or for other in-vehicle entertainment, the company said in an announcement.
  • Changan did not immediately respond to requests for clarity on the length a time a driver could safely relinquish driving control to the vehicle.
  • The self-driving system can pilot the vehicle when it exceeds 40 kilometers per hour on highways, but the human driver must be attentive. A human driver is required to intervene immediately when alerted, otherwise the car will move to safe mode, which may mean pulling over, the company said.
  • Changan said its self-driving vehicles have logged more than 50 million kilometers on public roads in a number of Chinese cities including the southeastern municipality of Chongqing and Beijing.
  • It obtained a permit to test self-driving cars on public roads in California from the Department of Motor Vehicles in late 2017, but had not conducted tests in the state as of last year, according to the government agency’s disengagement filings.
  • State-owned Changan is one of the entities which lead the drafting of Chinese rules and regulations for driving robocars on roads, which is expected to roll out within the year, Caixin reported citing company president Zhu Huarong.

Context: German automaker Audi unveiled in late 2017 the world’s first production vehicle with Level 3 autonomy, a new A8 luxury sedan, but the model will primarily be available domestically over the next several years, a result of strict regulations and consumer concern over the safety of autonomous cars.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

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