Nio will release a semi-autonomous technology that allows hands-free driving on urban highways to users in October, as Chinese electric vehicle makers ramp up efforts to combat Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assist system.

Called Navigate on Pilot (NOP), the technology will enable a Nio vehicle to drive from a highway’s on-ramp to off-ramp, merge lanes, and cruise on a highway following a route on the GPS navigation system, Nio said Saturday. It will be released via software update.

The company said that NOP would be the first assisted-driving function using high-definition maps on mass-produced vehicles in China, a practice that few automakers have adopted due to the government restrictions on foreign companies recording geographic information.

Speaking to Chinese media on Saturday during the Beijing Auto Show, CEO William Li said its test vehicles have driven more than 300,000 kilometers (around 186,400 miles) across 30 major cities collecting map data. He added NOP is more fine-tuned to Chinese traffic conditions compared with Tesla’s popular Navigate on Autopilot functionality.

Nio recently hired Ren Shaoqing, co-founder of Chinese self-driving startup Momenta, to enhance its R&D strength in vehicle autonomy. Momenta is currently one of the only 20 or so companies granted a mapping license by central authorities. Nio Capital, a private equity firm formed by the Chinese EV maker, led its $46 million Series B in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Tesla rival is reportedly considering building self-driving technologies in-house following the settlement of a $1 billion bailout, leaving the future of its partnership with Intel’s Mobileye uncertain. Chinese media reported that Nio recently reached an agreement with Qualcomm to test vehicles on its Snapdragon Ride computing platform, scheduled for mass production by 2023. Nio did not respond to a request for comment.

Automakers view high-precision mapping to be an essential component for smoothly functioning self-driving cars, helping sensor perception and path planning with more accurate localization. Tesla is an exception, however—CEO Elon Musk said that its vision-based system, which uses cameras and artificial intelligence, is easier to scale, reported The Verge.

Automakers have mostly resorted to mapping services to gain an advantage in the Chinese self-driving race. General Motors in July launched its hands-free assisted driving system Super Cruise in China by collaborating with Alibaba’s map service Amap, also known as Autonavi. Chinese media reported that the two companies have jointly mapped more than 300,000 kilometers of roads and will refresh map data via software updates every three months, citing a GM spokesperson.

Alibaba-backed Xpeng Motors expects to roll out its latest assisted-driving software, Xpilot 3.0, including a function called Navigation Guide Pilot (NGP), similar to Tesla’s NOA, in early 2021. Meituan-backed Li Auto is planning a similar launch as early as next year. Nio said it will roll out NOP with the version 2.7.0 update of its vehicle operating system Nio OS to users in October.

Nio’s current partner Mobileye last year made a push of its mapping technology Road Experience Management (REM) into China through a partnership with local chipmaker Tsinghua Unigroup. This was followed by an agreement with state-owned automaker SAIC, which will be the first Chinese OEM to provide driver-assisted functions with Mobileye’s mapping technology, according to an announcement released early this year.  

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Nio’s self-driving function as “Navigation on Pilot.” It is “Navigate on Pilot.”

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