Exclusive: Inside a Chinese driverless car

The Chinese mobility industry has stated its intent to be the global leader in driverless technology. Sumantra B Barooah gets inside China’s first driverless car to get this story.

Sumantra B Barooah By Sumantra B Barooah calendar 12 Jul 2016 Views icon13642 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp

So far, in almost every discussion related to driverless car technology, it is usually the names of global carmakers and Tier 1 suppliers from North America and Europe which come up as examples. But China, the world’s largest car market, wants to not only be in the club but also be a leader in this technology. And fast.

Autocar Professional became the first Indian media publication to get a first-hand experience of a key example of the Chinese industry strategy in the driverless car space, when this writer got into a driverless midsize sedan test car by leading Chinese OEM, Changan Automobile Co. The inquisitiveness to know more about the driverless car by a Chinese OEM didn’t make this writer bother about the summer heat of Chongqing in southwest China.

A team of over 100 people at Changan Automobile Co is dedicated to driverless car technology. GPS, radar and high speed camera are key components.

The controls, hardly any since it is a driverless ride, were quite easy. One only needs to turn on the ignition and press the ‘go’ button in the tablet. The car gently starts moving in the short route in an open exhibition area. The movement is pretty smooth for a car still under development.

Changan is the leading player among Chinese OEMs, but it’s not known, at least till now, for any major technological development. Changan’s driverless cars got it a fair amount of attention when they completed a 2,000 kilometre Chongqing-Beijing run in April this year. The route covered freeways, winding highways, tunnels and city traffic. Changan says it is the first in Asia to drive such cars on public roads.

“Look Ma, no hands!” Changan’s project is a reflection of China’s quest to lead the global driverless car race.

In the demo circuit, we come to a stationary car on our lane. The radar helps the car detect the obstacle, leading it to change the lane on its own. He Bo, an engineer from Changan Automobile Co, says that the radar, the GPS and the powerful high-speed camera are the three key components guiding the driverless Raeton sedan. The speed of the car in this circuit was capped at 30kph. On highways, it can go up to 125kph.

The test car travelled through busy city traffic and long tunnels during the 2,000km Chongqing-to-Beijing drive.

Changan started working on driverless car technology in 2013. The company says it has completed development of active security technologies which are now in batch production. It wants to keep pace with the development trends of “international first class enterprises”. Not surprising then that it set up a development centre in USA. Currently, Changan has about 100 people dedicated to the research of driverless car technologies. The OEM may launch its first driverless car, with autonomous driving capability on highways, by 2018.

Launch not too far away: Changan plans to launch commercially driverless tech in 2-3 years.

Changan is not the sole Chinese company which is seriously pursuing driverless technology. Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) is another major OEM which wants to tap the trend of driverless cars. Not to be left behind by a Google or an Apple, even major Chinese tech companies like Alibaba and Baidu also have entered the driverless car circuit. Will the Chinese lead the race? Keep reading this space. 

Recommended: China keen to up the ante in driverless car technology

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