Wuxi: Audi’s Chinese playground-city for autonomous cars
Wuxi, a Chinese city of 6,5 million inhabitants 100 km west of Shanghai is Audi’s preferred playground for testing its autonomous cars up to level 4 in real life circumstances. In Wuxi Audi’s engineers can test developments in actual traffic, that wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere. That’s why Audi is planning a research centre with 150 people by next year.
The rather unconventional style of driving of the Chinese is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time, as Financieel Dagblad’s Chinese correspondent, Sjoerd den Daas, could see on the spot.
Communicating with traffic lights
The test car – an Audi Q7 – driving at 60 km/hour slows down completely automatically when the car in front of it suddenly hits the brakes. At the traffic light a countdown timer appears on the dashboard showing how long it will take to get green light.
This car not only communicates with other cars but also with the road infrastructure. The so-called V2x (vehicle-to-everything) communication, using LTE, a faster version of 4G in attendance of 5G, that should be available here by 2020.
Priority is never given
In Wuxi already one sixth of the ‘smart’ traffic lights are ‘connected’ and can adapt their green light cycle to the traffic density. Based on traditional Chinese recipe, the other drivers at the traffic light are hooting when it goes too slowly to their opinion and the test car is overtaken by the left and the right, sometimes dangerously close.
In China priority is never given, you take it… even when you’re not entitled to it. Complicated for the development of the autonomous car? “Driving behaviour is somewhat different”, Alexander Peschi from Audi China says. “We want to meet the expectations of our clients, wherever in the world. It’s very important for Audi to be here.”
Easier in issuing permits
China, being an autocracy, has no difficulties in setting up areas and giving permits for testing autonomous driving technology. Something western car makers gratefully make use of. Audi got a permit for testing in Wuxi in September, a permit that was extended to Beijing in the meantime. BMW and Daimler are doing comparable testing in China.
“Laws sometimes sit in the way of new technologies. In China one is used to start in an early stage with testing”, says Peschi. China’s central planning authority, the National Development and Reform Committee (NDRC), has decided that the technologies tested today in Wuxi should be implemented in half of all new cars sold in 2020.
Pedestrians on the highway
The tests in Wuxi are not only going further than what Audi does in Düsseldorf, for instance, it requires also different algorithms and software to make the system ‘smarter’. “Here in China you can find pedestrians on the highway, for instance”, Peschi smiles. “In Germany we would have disabled the function to recognize pedestrians while on the Autobahn.”
In Germany and most other European countries the applicable road traffic regime only admits testing with vehicle systems that allow automatically handling of steering, braking and acceleration for a certain period of time or in specific situations.
The driver has to have control at all times. Tesla’s Autopilot in its current models is somewhere between autonomous level 2 and 3 and the driver is summoned to touch the steering wheel showing he’s monitoring the situation, every few minutes to avoid the system to switch itself off.
No constant monitoring
With level 4 autonomy as it is tested today by Audi and other manufacturers in China, the vehicle’s system no longer requires constant monitoring by the driver and the car almost performs everything on its own.
The ultimate is level 5, where no steering wheels or pedals are needed anymore and the there is no other actual ‘driver’ than the automated car itself. So, China is the place to be these days to take these technologies one step further than in the West for the time being.