Real driverless cars are now legal in Shenzhen, China's tech hub

·2 min read

There are plenty of autonomous driving vehicles testing on the roads of Shenzhen today: Pony.ai, Baidu, DeepRoute, AutoX, you name it. But these vehicles are not really the unmanned vehicles that tech upstarts envision for the future, as they have been required to operate with a safety driver behind the wheel.

A set of provisions introduced by the Shenzhen government is bringing the industry one step closer to a driverless future. The "Silicon Valley of China" that's home to the likes of Huawei, Tencent and DJI is historically known for its progressive economic policies, so it's unsurprising that the city just became the first in China to have laid out comprehensive rules governing smart and connected vehicles.

The regulation, which is set to take effect on August 1, grants permission for autonomous driving vehicles to operate without a human in the driver's seat -- though only within areas designated by the city's authorities.

The rules also define the thorny issue of liability. When the vehicle is equipped with a driver, the driver will "be handled" by the transportation authorities in case of traffic rule violations and incidents. But if the car is completely driverless, the owner or manager of the self-driving vehicle is subject to handling by the authorities. If the accident is a result of a defect in the connected car, the owner or manager of the car can seek compensation from the manufacturer or vendor.

Driverless robotaxis have been allowed to operate in Beijing, the capital city where events often serve as the bellwether for the rest of the country, but the permission comes in the form of case-by-case "permits" rather than being officialized in regulations as is the case with Shenzhen.

Major autonomous driving players in China have all opted for a lidar-based route instead of one that relies purely on vision tech like Tesla. Meanwhile, passenger car manufacturers are in a race to equip their latest models with advanced driving assistance tech, which is also powered by lidar. Robo vans designed to ferry things inside industrial facilities are similarly equipped with lidar.

Demand from these various fields has been a boon to domestic lidar makers like Hesai, Robosense, Livox and Innovusion, as well as foreign ones such as Ouster. Luminar, the Florida-based lidar company, recently snagged a strategic investment from Ecarx, a smart car platform started by China's auto mogul Li Shufu, the founder of Geely, which is expected to help it secure more business in China and beyond.

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