Beijing has issued its first licence for testing autonomous vehicles on city roads, just days after the first known fatal accident involving an AV and a pedestrian in the U.S.
Baidu Inc. received a temporary licence to operate AV’s on 105 kilometers of designated roads in the capital, in what was described as the first step towards wider testing.
The designated roads are located in less densely-populated areas on the outskirts of the city. The licenses are valid for 30 days and can be renewal after the self-driving cars pass follow-upassessments.
Earlier this month, Shanghai issued testing licences for the first time to Shanghai-based SAIC Motor Corp Ltd, and electric vehicle start-up NIO.
The Beijing announcement comes four days after a 49-year-old woman was hit and killed by an AV being tested by Uber in Arizona. Uber and Toyota have halted AV testing the U.S. in response.
The timing of the Beijing announcement was seen by some as an indication of China’s desire to compete with the U.S. in the development of autonomous vehicles.
"The announcement seems timed to make a statement," said Grayson Brulte, a business consultant in Los Angeles who focuses on autonomous vehicles. "People don’t realize it but the U.S. is in a race to get this technology out there first. It’s a national security issue."
In an apparent acknowledgement of the tragedy in the U.S., Tao Ji, technical director of Baidu’s automatic driving, said safety and obeying the rules of the road will be priorities in early tests, with the vehicles traveling below the speed limit.
"A driver usually learns how to drive better on actual roads instead of in a driving school, and so do self-driving cars," added Guo Jifu, president of Beijing Transport Institute.
According to regulations for managing road testing for self-driving vehicles, autonomous vehicles are eligible for public road testing only after they have completed 5,000 kilometers of daily driving in designated closed test areas and passed assessments.
Despite the new licences, China has lagged behind the U.S. in testing AVs. In a recent study of national preparedness for autonomous vehicles by KPMG, China came 16th on a list of 20 nations in terms of readiness for autonomous vehicles, just below Spain, but ahead of Brazil, Russia and India.
China received an especially low score on the regulatory front. It cited AV unfriendly government regulations such as requiring public maps to be no more than 50 meters accurate, and requiring that drivers must keep both hands on steering wheels.