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China Will Have Self-Driving Cars Before the US, Which Should Surprise No One

Gridlock in Beijing. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Gridlock in Beijing. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

While the US is making slow but steady progress toward an autonomous future, China is fast-tracking plans to get self-driving vehicles on the road. And one of the chief forces behind this revolution is an engineer who recently worked at Google competitor Intel.

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A fascinating profile in the New York Times looks at Gansha Wu, who left a 16-year career with Intel Labs China to launch an autonomous vehicle startup. What’s even more interesting about the story is that Wu has managed to assemble a supergroup of top tech minds—including some folks from Google:

“His team is an unusual collection of supertalent,” said Kai-Fu Lee, a venture investor from Taiwan and former head of Google in China. “They combine a mechanical expert from a university, a top computer vision expert and machine learning from Google as well as Gansha and his team of semiconductor experts. Gansha is an excellent leader that binds these people together.”

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The story goes on to posit that due to a whole host of reasons, China will very likely have autonomous vehicles on roads before the US. Not only is China generally bullish on self-driving cars, with very little pushback from government (unlike here), the culture is at a better inflection point to saturate the market. Yes, more Chinese people are buying cars, but ownership is still more for the wealthy, so millions of people still need an affordable way to get around when transit isn’t accessible. And with headline-making traffic and air pollution crippling big cities—including car bans which have become a way of life—the inherent benefits of more efficient transportation methods are more obvious.

In fact, two Chinese companies, Baidu and Yutong, have already performed plenty of public demonstrations of their self-driving bus concepts. It’s very likely that some Chinese public transit systems will be autonomous within two years, with taxi companies quick to follow.

Meanwhile, Wu’s company Uisee Technology (which stands for Utilization, Indiscriminate, Safety, Efficiency and Environment), plans to debut its concept car at next year’s CES. We’ll be waiting to see if the Uisee car is as cute as the Google car.

[New York Times]

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Alissa is the former urbanism editor at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

I find this hard to believe. Given the trouble current self-driving cars have with poor lane markings, driving in a place where the whole concept of lanes is largely ignored seems like a challenge. Unless I guess if you just allow the car to ignore traffic laws. If it just went where’ve it felt like and stopped/changed direction to avoid collisions, maybe that could work, but it’s not clear that’s an improvement over human drivers.