For some people, cars are a status symbol. For others, they’re a necessity. In any case, there is a litany of companies developing new features for private vehicles, each building a component that will make cars part of a network of fully autonomous vehicles—perhaps eventually making human drivers redundant. It’s a future that was imagined in films like Minority Report, with pods taking people to their destination without the need for human intervention. Here are the most important pieces of cutting-edge technology from China that are already being used in cars and forming the foundation of fully autonomous vehicles.
Eyes off the road, hands off the wheel?
The Chinese government expects 50% of all new auto sales in the country to have partial self-driving technology by 2025, while L2 (assisted steering, acceleration, and braking) and L3 automation (vehicles drive themselves in certain settings, like on highways) are expected to make up 70% of car sales by 2030. If that happens, cars in China might have a higher degree of automation than anywhere else in the world.
The change is already happening. GAC Group, for instance, is already installing Baidu Apollo’s self-driving protocols in its new vehicles. Apollo expects more automakers to do the same by the end of 2021. The approach to building cars is changing too: Joe Xia, head of Apollo, believes that software is the “soul” of personal vehicles.
Plenty of other companies are designing and refining similar algorithms. WeRide is testing its L4 automation—with no human intervention in geofenced areas—in California and on designated open roads in Guangzhou. Nio, meanwhile, has relaunched its L4 R&D project.
Investments are pouring into this facet of future cars. Freetech, a startup that formulates L2, L2+, and L3 solutions, just landed USD 100 million in its Series A round from notable investors in China.
No parking, no problem
The days of circling around parking lots looking for an unoccupied space may soon come to an end, thanks to researchers and engineers who are developing software to specifically manage a vehicle’s parking process. Startups that make automated valet parking possible include ZongMu, a low-profile decacorn, as well as MiniEye, which counts Dongfeng Motor Corp, Geely, SAIC Motor, and BYD as clients.
Online all the time
The 5G base stations that are being built all around the world are essential to automation. Not only will cars’ software need upgrades and the fact that navigation requires internet connectivity, but a lot of data will also be gathered through cars, like our voices—for verbal commands issued to our vehicles. Last year, nearly half of all new cars sold in China had online capabilities.
Meanwhile, governments around the world are figuring out how to regulate data collection, storage, and processing. This is a particularly touchy point when it comes to connected automobiles, as they may reveal information about key infrastructure or the behaviors of important public officials. The way in which regulation may impact the development of the mobility and automobile sectors remains to be seen.
Always in control
Sitting in front of a well-designed dashboard can make a driver feel like they’re piloting a luxurious spaceship. More than that, smart head-up displays add to the perception that one is the master of a high-powered, high-tech piece of machinery. Raythink Technology, a startup based in Shenzhen, embeds augmented reality displays in cars. And Xpeng Motors, which is now listed in New York and Hong Kong, is also developing smart cockpit features for its electric vehicles.
Go far, go farther
As China’s largest EV battery maker, CATL supplies numerous major automakers around the world and is constantly ramping up its production capabilities.
At the same time, some manufacturers are developing batteries of their own. BYD has already made headway on this front and will install its proprietary batteries in every vehicle that rolls off its assembly lines.
Does that mean longer charging times? It depends on the car. To make things convenient, Nio has developed a system for battery swaps, meaning a fresh new battery might just be a few minutes away.
The scientific progress made in power storage is making EVs go farther with every new model that is released, dissolving the range anxiety that once discouraged potential buyers from taking the plunge.
Personal vehicles are about to evolve rapidly. Will they reach a point where cars bought three or four years ago already feel outdated, like how some view their phones? Cars are meant to stay with their buyers for far longer than that, so it will be interesting to see how automakers future-proof their vehicles.
For now, autonomous cars cruise down open streets as part of cautious tests. Some are even available for public trial on a limited basis, like Baidu’s robotaxis and driverless buses in Beijing.
But the scenes in Minority Report? They’re still years, if not decades, away.