5G-driven autonomous cars: China vs the world
The test track in Fangshan was opened last year. It is the first Chinese test track for autonomous cars using 5G. At 2.2 km long, it has four lanes and is full of sensors, cameras, and smart traffic lights. The most important feature, however: a Huawei-built antenna with superfast 5G signal.
While the first generation autonomous cars were mimicking human drivers, with cameras replacing eyes, the new generation in Fangshan is all-seeing. The Beijing News daily calls it a ‘divine perspective’. Live traffic information from sensors in the street, from cameras and traffic lights through 5G connectivity. They can’t only see what happens right in front, but as far as they want.
“Normally, autonomous cars can see 200 meters ahead”, says Wang Haitang, who works at the Fangshan track. “But our cars are connected and know if the traffic light one kilometer ahead will be green or red, and if they have to speed up or slow down. they can see around the corner. they oversee the complete situation.”
The Fangshan test track is funded by the local government, together with state-owned telecom provider China Mobile. Chinese car- and tech companies can use the facilities free of charge. Car manufacturer BAIC does, as well as e-commerce companies Jingdong and Alibaba and taxi service Didi.
The track shows how important 5G is to China, being 100 times faster than 4G, allowing a large number of industrial applications. This fifth generation mobile internet is a priority in the 13th 5-year plan and the subsidy program ‘Made in China 2025’. By the end of this year, 40 Chinese cities should have 5G. By 2025, the whole country should be covered. China will be the worldwide leader in 5G. The EU chose WiFi over 5G for autonomous cars.
But China’s leadership also leads to tensions with the US, which was the 4G leader. The US government fears that Huawei will abuse its role in 5G networks to spy for the Chinese government or launch cyber attacks. To prevent this, the US ministry of trade has issued a ban for US companies delivering parts to Huawei.
If Huawei gets cut off from US high-tech, it might affect the company’s and China’s roll-out of 5G and indirectly the development of Chinese autonomous cars. Wang Haitang prefers not to comment too much, saying: “It will not impact us. We do all of our research and development ourselves.”
The Fangshan track is looping around an industrial estate for high-tech companies. Besides autonomous cars, those companies work on robots and batteries.
On the track, small autonomous cars from the Chinese start-up Uisee constantly buzz around. Behind the wheel, a back-up driver with his hands on his knees for security. Wang says it is a bit strange at first, but you quickly get used to it. “You know these cars are more dependable than humans. When a human blinks, it takes 150 to 200 milliseconds. The 5G delay is only 10 milliseconds.
The question is if 5G autonomous cars will cause privacy issues. They register the position and speed of other cars on the road. This opens the door for privacy issues and – in the case of China – excessive government control.
Sun Xiaomeng, a member of the management team at the Fangshan test track, says that those kinds of questions don’t preoccupy them. “At the moment, car companies are the ones asking or privacy. In this time of big data, everybody wants their test results. But we have a non-disclosure agreement with each of them.”
Wang Haitan dismisses the problem as well, in typical Chinese fashion. “Technical progress is more important. I don’t think I have anything to hide.”
Jean Todt: autonomous cars and road safety
Meanwhile, FIA president Jean Todt feels autonomous cars still have a long way to go. “I am confident experts and lawmakers will arrange the problems of autonomous cars. But when will there be autonomous cars in Nairobi, Benin or Mauretania? 80% of traffic deaths today occur in developing countries.”
“In India, 300.000 people die in traffic each year, and the same goes for China. Two countries that are responsible for 45% of all traffic deaths. Autonomous cars and electric cars are very low-volume”, he adds.
Todt, who is also a UN ambassador for road safety, says 1.350 million people die in traffic each year. 30 to 50 million are wounded. The FIA plays a role in fighting what he calls “a pandemic like malaria, TBC or AIDS. “We can’t cure it yet, but we have to educate, make laws and improve vehicles, infrastructure and the quality of post-accident care.
The role of Formula One in road safety
When asked about the lowered French 80 km/h speed limit on secondary roads, Todt responds: “In 1973, there were 18.000 road deaths in France. Today, there are 3.250 with three times more vehicles. Whether you like it or not, this means road safety is on the political agenda. But when it comes to developing countries, they are not really involved.”
The FIA has launched an initiative in which F1 drivers campaign for road safety in the margin of the Grand Prix. This might also play a role in developing countries, says Todt.
“When the GP of Vietnam was announced, I told the organizers they would get a lot of attention and it was a good time to talk about road safety”. The government responded by distributing 10.000 helmets in Hanoi, where the GP will take place.