Most automated driving activities take place in the US and in China. And most of the automated driving players come from the US such as Waymo, Cruise, Zoox, Argo.AI, Aurora, etc. or from China such as AutoX, Pony.AI, WeRide, Baidu Apollo, Didi Chuxing, TuSimple, etc. Some of the Chinese players are active in the US; none of the American players are active in China. In both countries, commercial ride hailing services (and some without security driver) have already been launched. Thus, is it all the same on both sides of the pacific?
No, it is different – very different to be honest. Let’s have a closer look.
The Chinese applications are often taking place in recently rebuilt enterprise zones like the Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area. In general, the road infrastructure in the booming megacities (where the automated driving players are located) have often been built in the past 30 years with the focus on motorized traffic first. No steep roads, wide intersections with simplified squared layout and channelized turning lanes. Due to the recently-built roads, you will find multi-lane roads with road marks and traffic signs in good quality. The road often is separated from the pedestrians with fences and, additionally, the lanes of the oncoming traffic as well. Also motorcycles are getting separated lanes to not interfere with four-wheelers. Trams and light rails rarely exist in China.
In the US you will also find wide multi-lane roads but surface, road marks and traffic are varying in their quality. Often you have to deal with more narrow roads with parked cars on both sites. Motorcycles are rarely used but the number of bicycles is rising (in contrast to China because they are a sign of poverty and not of a new urban lifestyle like in the US). The bicycles have their bike lanes directly on the road due to limited space and have to interact closely with the other traffic participants. Sometimes light rail is sharing the road and the heavy-rail is crossing the roads. Intersections can be more complex (but not as complex as compared to Europe) and turning lanes are often not separated. Sometimes center turn lanes (and tidal lanes) are used. And to handle a 4-way-stop intersection some kind of communication with the other road participants is necessary. In the US you can overtake on the right; China has the obligation to drive on the right (like in the European Union).
It seems obvious that the roads in the US are more diverse than in China – which leads to more challenges. To reduce the variations the company Cavnue tries to simplify the roads for automated driving by introducing lane separation and communication technology. What we think about this approach, you can read in our post about Build Something New or Process the Existing.
Talking about communication technology leads us to the next difference between China and the United States of America: The newly-built enterprise zones are heavily equipped with traffic and surveillance cameras as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication. Most of the intersections with V2I traffic lights communicate their signal phase and timing information to the vehicles. The detection of traffic light states with cameras that gets challenging during adverse weather can be supported by this communication. The vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication could also help especially when emergency vehicles have to come through. An approaching emergency vehicle warning message could warn an automated driving vehicle in advanced so that it is not blocking the road without having proper possibilities to move over when the emergency vehicle is in sensor range.
In the US V2I equipment is currently just in pilot state. Using 5G mobile communications already enables this versatile connectivity in the Chinese enterprise zones. Not only information is provided from infrastructure to the vehicles, but also the overall traffic management can have a close look at the current transport scene. In the US, traffic management often is applied to the major roads only.
There is also another difference: In the US geodata is more or less common property, everybody can apply for maps from the public authorities. Also, everybody can survey the roads and work with their data. In China mapping is part of the development of national economy and build-up of national defense (among other). You need a permission from the state to map in China and then the map data has to stay in China. This makes it more complicated for non-Chinese companies to utilize development resources located abroad while Chinese companies can compute the world at home.
As already mentioned, in China the new road infrastructure is additionally equipped heavily with road surveillance to fight against the former chaos of traffic. Connected to the social credit systems people are conforming more and more to the rules: Less jaywalking, vehicles do not park where it is not permitted or stop at the side of the road, less wrong-way driver (but still some scooter drivers are obstinate) and no running of red lights.
In the US it depends from state to state. The road compliance in Miami is not the best and law enforcement takes only place by patrols and not with omnipresent infrastructure equipment.
The overall traffic is also less dense in the Chinese enterprise zones and therefore less chaotic. In the US, the SAE level 4 players have chosen different test areas: residential areas with calmed traffic like in Chandler/Phoenix, AZ or busy downtowns such as San Francisco, CA or Pittsburgh, PA.
What China and the United State have in common: The regulations are differing across the provinces, respectively states (or counties). In one city you may get a driving permit whereas there is no national regulation, yet. In another city you may get support by offerings of cheap offices and premises to build service hubs. Good contacts are helping everywhere and promotion of the industry supports decision-making.
The last huge difference is the kind of offered service. In China the ride hailing bases on fixed stops that are pre-defined. Often the setting of these stopping points is resembling bus stops: No other vehicles are allowed to stop there; an extra parking lane ensures safe pick up and drop off of the passengers. The extra lanes are also designed in a way that there is no occlusion for the vehicle’s sensor to easily re-merge into the traffic flow.
In contrast the services in the US are designed as free floating. The robo-taxi will try to come to you as close as possible. Sometimes they will pick you up some meters next to your position; sometimes you have to cross at least the street. In the residential areas they are using parking facilities, which sometimes lead to the situation that the vehicles have to perform a three-point turn additionally to the re-merging into the traffic at driveways.
Using fixed stops leads also to an easier routing because only a limited number of potential routes are necessary whereas a free-floating system generates an infinite number of routes. To reduce complexity in this case, streets have to be removed from the map of driveable ways beforehand. But this can lead to detours to major roads, which may not be accepted by the customer because of a longer travel time. The fixed stops can be placed in a way that every connection is fine-tuned to avoid complex road situations.
Automated Driving services seem to be similar but they are completely different. The road infrastructure is newer and road compliance is better in China because of but not limited to the heavy usage of traffic separation and surveillance as well as communication. Also the stricter laws and their enforcement pay off to reduce chaotic traffic. The offered ride hailing service is also simplified by using only limited stopping points instead of allowing freely chosen trips within a specified service area.
It seems that the automated driving applications in China are less complex than in the United States of America. But in the US it also depends on the location where the application is set up. Selecting calmed residential areas with good infrastructure instead of crowed and worn downtowns can reduce complexity. Additionally, good weather conditions help to pass on vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.
But if you want to have real complexity you should visit different countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel or even India e.g., as Mobileye is doing so… but this is a different story.
Yes, there are more automated driving players out there from the rest of the world such as Japan, Korea, Israel, United Kingdom, France and Germany but we focused here on two locations. If you want to know more about automated driving in special environments then read our feature about automated bus shuttles.