Anjani Trivedi

China Sets the Rules of the Road

Even as autonomous-vehicle technology gets better, the thought of being in a driverless car is as scary as a few years ago. The news around faulty experiments makes that worse. Big, bold plans of intelligent auto self-navigation aren’t where they were forecast to be. Except in China.

Much like it took a lead on electric vehicles, China may do so with connected and intelligent automobiles — because it’s part of Beijing’s blueprint. The country’s progress on autonomous vehicles is underpinned by the government’s renewed push to bring in regulation. In a bid to commercialize driverless mobility, the transportation ministry in August released draft rules for self-driving autos while the industrial technology hub of Shenzhen became the first city to allow them on its roads. In Beijing, Inc. and Baidu Inc. have received permits to operate robotaxis. Now, eight major cities are trialing the driverless ride-hailing services, where passengers can travel for free or a nominal fee.

As the market for intelligent vehicles grows, China’s share is also expanding. The country is forecast to have a grasp on around half of the 1.7 trillion-yuan ($237 billion) industry by 2025, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. analysts.

Beijing’s endorsement of AVs isn’t part of a fad to keep up with evolving technology. Unlike other parts of the world, where regulatory backing has been one of the biggest barriers, China has actively made way for driverless cars through detailed legislation, permits and special zones since 2015 when the State Council identified it as a key focus area over the following decade.

It’s now looking for mass commercialization by 2030. State backing matters because if cars are to become truly and fully autonomous then we’ll have to rethink decades-old rules of the road. That won’t be the realm of private companies — no matter how good their technology is.

The government-backed and guided approach has proved effective because the regulation is specific and creates boundaries; it doesn’t just set out a broad, sweeping set of guidelines or rules. There are details around key issues for AVs like road-testing, permits, cybersecurity, high-definition maps, accidents and liability. In Beijing, for instance, a 60-square-kilometer (23-square-mile) area that covers around 300,000 residents has been designated to allow driverless cars. That’s giving a framework to companies making software to pilot AVs.

With policy tailwinds, firms that develop software for smart cockpits and fancy central control panels for drivers are all the rage. Drivers too want more: Sales of vehicles equipped with these features have been rising in China. Intel Corp.-backed Mobileye Global Inc. is pairing with one of the country’s most successful auto firms, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., which has stakes in Mercedes-Benz Group AG and Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings Plc, to put in a highly automated chauffeur system in Geely’s high-end EV brand Zeekr.

With software evolving, hardware like sensors and cameras are likely to catch up. Making those in China won’t be difficult either. The hardest part will be getting riders on board. Ultimately, AVs will require a behavioral shift as people become comfortable being in cars without drivers and giving up control to a machine. The regulatory push helps set parameters and safety standards that allow consumers to wrap their heads around a new way of traveling. It may slow things down but that’s what is needed. It will also set a global precedent.

Otherwise, who wants to dive into such emergent technology, especially on the roads? A car keeping you in your lane and taking the pressure off parallel parking is quite nice. A vehicle driving you on an open highway at high speed is a whole lot different. All of that only happens safely when the rules are set — as Beijing is doing.