Chinese firms accelerate in race toward driverless future

AFP Newswires, April 23, 2016

 

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Chinese Internet giant LeECO Holdings Ltd unveils its internet electric battery driverless concept car ‘LeSEE’,  during a launch event in Beijing, on April 20, 2016

 

Beijing: Chinese manufacturers and internet giants are in hot pursuit of their US counterparts in the race to design driverless cars, but the route to market is still littered with potholes.

While Google has been working on autonomous vehicles for at least six years, with the likes of BMW, Volvo and Toyota in its wake, more recently Chinese businesses have entered the race, from internet search giant Baidu to manufacturer Changan.

Last week, ahead of the Beijing Auto Show opening on Monday, two self-driving Changan cars made a mountainous 2,000 kilometre (1,200 mile) journey from Chongqing in the southwest to the capital in the country’s first long-distance autonomous vehicle test.

Another Chinese internet giant, LeECO, is also venturing into autonomous technologies, unveiling Wednesday in Beijing an electric car that can park itself and be summoned to its owner’s location via smartphone.

And late last year Baidu tested China’s first locally designed driverless vehicle, a modified BMW, with a 30 kilometre ride through the streets of Beijing.

Despite China’s relatively late entry to the field, analysts believe the country could become a key market for driverless vehicles thanks to a more favourable regulatory and consumer environment.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) forecasts that global sales of driverless cars will reach 12 million by 2035, with more than a quarter sold in China.

Vehicles which automatically adjust their routes in response to real-time traffic information could solve chronic gridlock in China’s major cities, BCG’s Xavier Mosquet told AFP.

“If they believe this would ease traffic, Chinese authorities will do all they can to promote the development of this technology and then its use,” he said.

Robot taxis

Public concerns over the safety of driverless cars are far lower than elsewhere, according to a survey by Roland Berger consultants in 2015, which found 96 per cent of Chinese would consider an autonomous vehicle for almost all everyday driving, compared with 58 per cent of Americans and Germans.

In a country notorious for accidents, the promise of better safety through autonomous technologies could also be appealing.

The ultimate prize, say analysts, will be when mass transport firms such as taxi-hailing giant Uber, or its Chinese rival Didi, can deploy huge fleets of robot taxis.

“The real payoff for truly driverless technology will come when cars on the road are no longer owned by people, but are owned by fleet management services,” said Bill Russo, managing director of the consultancy firm Gao Feng.

“That’s where you want to think about taking the driver out of the equation. Mobility on demand is hugely popular here.”

In the Roland Berger survey, 51 per cent of Chinese car owners said they would prefer to use robot taxis rather than buy a new vehicle themselves, compared with 26 per cent of Americans.

With a ready market, China may soon become the top location for companies to refine driverless technology.

Swedish manufacturer Volvo, owned by China’s Geely since 2010, this month announced plans to test drive up to 100 of its vehicles on Chinese roads this year.

Changan, a partner of Ford, is set to roll out commercial autonomous vehicles for motorways from 2018, while mass production of driverless city cars is projected to begin in 2025.

‘Does the car choose?’

Baidu, meanwhile, says it will launch self-driving buses by 2018, which will operate on fixed routes in select cities in China.

Like Google, the internet giant already owns detailed road maps and has experience in electronic security, and a company spokeswoman told AFP it had had “very positive feedback” from the government.

But analysts are more cautious, predicting slow-moving autonomous vehicles will not appear in towns until at least 2020.

Production costs were still too high to make a robot taxi fleet viable, BCG’s Mosquet said.

“There are still many questions to be resolved” before fully autonomous vehicles can be put into public use, said Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst for IHS.

He pointed to “chaotic traffic situations” on roads shared with cyclists and pedestrians, and less-than-adequate infrastructure.

Technology will be the first to see solutions, he said, but that still left regulation and issues around liability and insurance to be addressed.

For some, there are moral dilemmas as well.

“If you have someone jumping out in front of an autonomous car, does the car have to choose between killing that person, or swerving and crashing and killing the passenger?” asked Robin Zhu, senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

“If your car could choose to kill you, would you get in it?”

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2016-04-chinese-firms-driverless-future.html#jCp

China Seen Laying Down $15 Billion Bet on Electric Vehicles

Bloomberg News, December 16, 2015

China to be `epicenter of electrification,’ analyst says

BYD, Zotye among biggest sellers of electric cars in China

China has found electric cars a tough sell even after lavishing consumers with subsidies and privileges. After almost certainly failing to meet a target to have half a million of such vehicles on its roads by year end, its next act is to achieve a 10-fold increase by the end of the decade.

The electric vehicles in service will fall about 26 percent short of its year-end target, according to estimates from the science ministry and state-backed auto association. To meet its 2020 goal of five million EVs, the government will speed up the construction of charging stations, reducing a major inconvenience for urban residents who don’t have personal garages to charge their cars.

“China will be the epicenter for electrification of the auto industry globally,” said Bill Russo, Shanghai-based managing director at Gao Feng Advisory Co., who estimates that China would have invested 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) by 2020 on new-energy vehicles.

President Xi Jinping has designated electric vehicles as a strategic initiative in a bid to upgrade the auto industry and create challengers to Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. The government is increasing spending after signs that the combination of research grants, consumer subsidies and infrastructure investments is starting to yield results. New-energy vehicle production surged fourfold to 279,200 units in the first 11 months, even as oil traded near levels last seen during the global financial crisis.

Local Winners

That has benefited automakers like BYD Co., Zoyte Auto and BAIC Motor Corp., which have led sales of electric cars. BYD, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., would have turned a loss in 2014 and this year if not for EV subsidies from the central government, according to Barclays Plc. Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. said last month that it would target new-energy vehicles to make up 90 percent of sales by 2020.

The government incentives have lured consumers like Zhang Peng, 30, who decided to buy BAIC’s EV200 electric car after trying without success for two years to win a license plate in the bimonthly lottery held by the Beijing government. EVs are exempt from the ballot, which has worse odds than roulette.

Zhang also received 90,000 yuan in matching grants from the central and local governments, or almost half of the 208,922 yuan sticker price for BAIC’s EV200 electric car. The model costs about 7.5 yuan to run every 100 kilometers (62 miles), compared with an estimated 39 yuan for an equivalent gasoline-powered 1.6-liter Toyota Corolla, according to calculations based on the published fuel-economy rating and Beijing pump prices.

Battery Suppliers

The burgeoning demand has also helped battery suppliers such as South Korea’s Samsung SDI Co. and LG Chem Ltd., which supplies SAIC Motor Corp. and Chongqing Changan Automobile Co. Panasonic Corp. said it is considering building a car-battery factory in China to supply lithium-ion batteries.

Among local component makers, Wanxiang Qianchao Co. and Hunan Corun New Energy Co. have more than doubled in Shanghai trading this year as investors bet the surge in electric vehicle demand will boost demand. BYD has climbed 34 percent this year and Geely Automobile has surged 79 percent in Hong Kong trading, compared with the 8.4 percent decline in the benchmark Hang Seng Index.

Global automakers are beginning to get into the act. Volkswagen AG, the largest foreign carmaker by sales, has said it will introduce 15 locally produced new-energy vehicles in the next three to five years in the country. Ford Motor Co. said this month it’s investing $4.5 billion globally in electrified vehicles.

‘Foreigners Coming’

“In the initial stage it was mainly local automakers competing with each other in the electric-car segment, but now the foreign players are coming,” said Ouyang Minggao, director of the Tsinghua New Energy Vehicle Center. “All kinds of electric cars will be here soon, including plug-in hybrids, which will lead to very big challenges to local automakers.”

The Chinese government is not alone in setting aggressive targets for alternative-energy transportation. President Barack Obama in 2011 called for one million electrified vehicles in the U.S. by 2015, a target that the administration scaled back in March after low gasoline prices reduced the cost advantage of plug-in and hybrid vehicles.

China, though, has stood out in terms of the scale of the state’s financial support. The country has invested about 37 billion yuan into the new-energy vehicle segment over the past five years, according to Gao Feng’s Russo, who estimates the government will devote another 63 billion yuan by 2020.

Funding Plan

The central government released a plan on Wednesday detailing funding for local governments to construct charging facilities, tied to the number of new-energy vehicles they sell.

Automakers will have to play by China’s rules if they want a piece of the market, even if they don’t believe in electric cars. The government has mandated the lowering of average fuel consumption to 5 liters by 2020, from 6.9 liters per 100 km this year.

“There is really no choice for the automakers, if they are required to meet the more stringent emission standards by 2020,” said Steve Man, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “Other technologies with the stringent emission standards won’t get you all the way to target.”