China’s Companies Poised to Take Leap in Developing a Driverless Car
Gansha Wu was a veteran engineering manager at Intel Corporation and director of Intel Labs China when two events upended his world last year.
去年，两件事颠覆了当时还是英特尔资深工程管理者兼英特尔中国研究院(Intel Labs China)院长的吴甘沙的世界。
First, he listened to the veteran technology writer Michael Malone tell an audience of Intel employees that if they were too cautious they would fail. Then he attended a leadership training session for Intel executives. The trainer told them that “to be a leader is to design a future that is unpredictable and which nobody bets on.”
He couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about his well-ordered, 16-year career at Intel. So he decided to take a risk. With four colleagues, he made the decision to take the uncertain path, which today is becoming more common in China than even in Silicon Valley: He quit his job to begin a start-up that specializes in autonomous, or self-driving, cars.
In the process, Mr. Wu hit upon a rare moment when a tech sector in China is developing in lock step with a similar but separate market in the United States.
In fact, some argue that conditions in China are actually more favorable for quick adoption of driverless cars, in part because of more aggressive support from the national and local governments. And, unlike in the United States, China never fully developed a romance with the open road and car ownership.
Car ownership has spiked in China, of course. And in recent years, it has become a middle-class status symbol to own a car. For the ultrawealthy, there are clubs dedicated to Ferraris and Maseratis.
But enormous traffic jams in China’s largest cities can make driving a less-than-romantic experience. Why not let a machine built with artificial intelligence inside do the work for you?
Research done by the Boston Consulting Group suggests that within 15 years China will be the largest market for autonomous vehicles, said Xavier Mosquet, a managing director at the firm. Automated taxis will most likely lead the trend.
波士顿咨询公司(Boston Consulting Group)常务董事泽维尔‧莫斯奎特(Xavier Mosquet)表示，该公司的研究显示，中国将在15年内成为最大的自动驾驶车辆市场。自动驾驶出租车极有可能引领这股潮流。
“It’s not that people are more willing to use the cars in Beijing or Shanghai, it’s that the economic value is much higher in China than in the U.S.,” Mr. Mosquet said, adding that air pollution could be as much a catalyst as bad traffic.
Even as American companies like Google and Tesla work on autonomous vehicles, a number of Chinese companies are working on driverless car technology. The Internet company Leshi Internet Information & Technology (better known as Letv) has a driverless car tech unit, and the Chinese carmaker Great Wall Motors has opened a research center in Silicon Valley. The assumed leader in the field in China is the search engine company Baidu, which has been at work on autonomous vehicles since 2013.
Among the torrent of start-ups, however, Mr. Wu and his colleagues are unusual because of their experience.
Mr. Wu’s company, Uisee Technology, has yet to announce its financial backers, but it has significant ambitions. The team plans to have a technology demonstration ready in less than a year at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in 2017.
“His team is an unusual collection of supertalent,” said Kai-Fu Lee, a venture investor from Taiwan and former head of Google in China. “They combine a mechanical expert from a university, a top computer vision expert and machine learning from Google as well as Gansha and his team of semiconductor experts. Gansha is an excellent leader that binds these people together.”
The founders of Uisee, which is an acronym for Utilization, Indiscriminate, Safety, Efficiency and Environment, say they believe the company will find a profitable niche between the poles of the driverless car debate that is raging in Silicon Valley.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, has predicted that completely self-driving cars may be on the road in the United States in two to four years. Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving-car program, has said his goal is to bring a self-driving car to market by 2019.
特斯拉(Tesla)首席执行官埃隆·马斯克(Elon Musk)曾预言，在未来的2-4年内，完全的自动驾驶汽车或许能够在美国上路。谷歌无人驾驶汽车项目主管克里斯·厄姆森(Chris Urmson)曾说，他的目标是在2019年使无人驾驶汽车进入市场。
Others are more cautious, and say they believe it may take a decade or longer for self-driving cars to hit the market. And among the biggest automakers like Toyota, the interest is less in cars that drive themselves than in cars that have artificial intelligence capabilities to assist drivers, like emergency braking.
“We see a few stages toward fully autonomous driving,” said Mr. Wu, adding that safety technologies are coming quickly. He said driver assistance systems will be followed by completely driverless cars in restricted circumstances, such as on private roads, fixed routes at low speed and in controlled environments. Uisee will begin by developing technologies that assist rather than replace drivers.
Baidu has teamed up with BMW and recently said it was testing its technology in the United States. Baidu has said it is preparing to introduce automated public transportation services in China within the next two years.
Unlike Google, which has had difficulty convincing regulators in its home state, California, that self-driving cars are ready for the road, Baidu already has the regulatory and infrastructure support of a number of local Chinese governments, which it will use to introduce small autonomous buses that will run set routes.
The Chinese government is playing a major role in the overall driverless market. Along with empowering Baidu to run public transportation, in other cases central and local governments have been investing in research and development for driverless car projects.
Mr. Wu also embodies a growing entrepreneurial movement in China. The Chinese government reported that 4.8 million new companies were registered from March 2014 to May 2015, a rate of 10,600 new businesses per day, or seven every minute. Even though venture investment has begun to dry up in China recently, the nation has clearly been infected with a Silicon Valley attitude.
Although in some quarters it is still known as the land of copycat technology, China has long since moved on to copying the start-up ethos of the Valley, with more and more entrepreneurs creating their own companies.
The Chinese government is encouraging the boom as a way to solve a number of economic problems, including unemployment and the transition of the economy from one centered on manufacturing to one based on services.
“This year more than seven million people are entering the job market in China,” said Haiyang Li, a professor at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston. “What are they going to do with these students? The government does not have any better way to solve the employment issue.”
“今年，中国会有700多万人进入就业市场，”休斯顿莱斯大学杰西·H·琼斯商学院研究生院(Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University)教授李海洋说。“他们要怎么处理这些学生？政府根本没有更好的解决就业问题的办法。”
Even as analysts and investors worry the government is over-investing in start-ups, the state support, along with China’s engineering talent and the business need for self-driving cars, could help the nascent business in China.
But there are obstacles. In China, roads often have poorly marked lanes and little signage. People, animals, three-wheel rickshaws and trucks are liable to veer in front of a car at any time. That makes for a more challenging engineering problem in China, said Junyi Zhang, a partner with the consulting firm Roland Berger.
“It is harder in China, where many roads have pedestrians, bicycles, low-speed vehicles and high-speed vehicles all mixed together,” he said. “It is a very complicated environment, and many don’t ride or drive to the same standard.”