Fully autonomous, driverless cars could become a frequent sight at some roads in Shenzhen, China’s technology hub in southern Guangdong province, after the metropolis rolled out the country’s first dedicated regulations for these vehicles.
Under Shenzhen’s regulations of intelligent connected cars, which took effect on August 1, registered autonomous vehicles that function without a human driver can travel on certain roads and other areas designated by local transport authorities. A so-called safety operator, however, is still required.
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“This is the first-of-its-kind regulations tailored for smart and connected vehicle management,” said Maxwell Zhou, chief executive at DeepRoute.ai, a Shenzhen-based start-up that is one of the first autonomous driving companies to deploy its fully self-driving cars on the city’s roads.
“It fills the legal gap for domestic intelligent connected vehicles and clarifies liability,” Zhou said. Under the new rules, autonomous vehicles are classified into three levels: conditional, high-level and fully autonomous driving.
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When an autonomous vehicle has a driver, this person is liable to pay compensation in case of an accident, according to the new regulations. When the vehicle is fully autonomous, the owner or manager of the car could be liable for compensation when damages are caused.
While Beijing earlier this year allowed fully driverless cars to operate in a pilot zone at the capital’s southeast Yizhuang district, Shenzhen is first in the country to roll out local regulations for autonomous vehicles, thanks to its status as a “socialist model city” with modern governance policies backed by the Chinese government.
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Shenzhen’s development model for autonomous vehicles reflects increased optimism about how this could help blaze a trail for other cities across China, the world’s biggest car market.
“With the legal and regulatory framework set in place (in Shenzhen), we expect the commercialisation of autonomous driving will move faster,” DeepRoute.ai’s Zhou said.
During a test ride on Tuesday afternoon, DeepRoute.ai’s driverless cars cruised around Shenzhen’s Futian Bonded Zone, a busy area where long lorries operate and illegally parked vehicles clog its narrow streets.
That three-kilometre trip took around eight minutes. Riders kept track of the car’s route and surrounding environment in real time through monitors inside the vehicle.
DeepRoute.ai, which is backed by major investors such as Alibaba Group Holding and Chinese carmaker Geely, opened public trials of its robotaxi service in Futian district in July last year with a fleet of 70 autonomous vehicles. E-commerce giant Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.
That service, which initially recorded more than 50,000 orders last year, is expected to initiate fully driverless, public transport operations in Shenzhen when local authorities draw up details of its coverage under the new regulations, according to the company.
DeepRoute.ai’s autonomous driving system is supported by five LIDARS – light detection and ranging sensors – and eight cameras built on the self-driving car, replacing the integrated sensor suite on the car roof that early autonomous vehicles used. A passenger can intervene with an extra brake on the seat, but has no control of the car’s steering wheel.
Apart from DeepRoute.ai, Internet search and artificial intelligence giant Baidu plans to deploy as many as 100,000 next-generation autonomous taxis from next year, helping passengers trim half of their ride-hailing costs. Baidu, which launched its Apollo Go robotaxi ride-hailing service in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district in February, aims to expand its service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030. – South China Morning Post