Chinese companies including Baidu, Didi and JD look set to make big strides in the driverless car industry, rolling out tests across the country after Beijing gave the green light for applications.
On February 2, Beijing released a draft document on road testing of driverless cars, which clearly details what tests a smart car must undergo before being allowed to run on actual city roads.
The applications for tests are only open for companies and not individuals.
Many giant driverless vehicle companies had the intention of applying, Beijing Evening Post reported, but no company has yet officially submitted an application.
Opening up applications for self-driving vehicles tests is a new step for the Chinese government in its bid to harness the use of artificial intelligence for transport, and part of efforts to make China a global leader in smart car technology by 2035, experts noted.
According to the technical assessment, vehicles should be tested in daylight at a speed of no more than 60 km per hour.
The vehicle should be able to switch between self-driving and conventional modes and be equipped with sensors and cameras so its driving behavior and position can be monitored.
The test requires that vehicles pass several specific road driving maneuvers within a designated time, including driving along a curve, making quarter turns and parking on a slope.
If the car impedes other vehicles, cannot maintain a safe distance and speed, has a traffic accident or breaks traffic rules, the vehicle fails the test. A driver is required to be present, and will be held responsible if an accident does occur.
"The technical assessment is difficult for vehicles currently designed by Chinese companies to pass. But when China establishes testing venues that are friendly to driverless cars, it might help them to pass the tests," Dai Yifan, the head of the Suzhou Automotive Research Institute, Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Monday.
Yizhuang in Beijing's Daxing district was chosen as the first road for driverless vehicle tests, Beijing Evening Post reported in January.
A section of the Yizhuang pilot road for driverless cars will be capable of interacting with cars, which is part of Beijing's plan to construct more roads for self-driving vehicles, the report quoted Wu Qiong, the secretary of the Beijing Intelligent Transportation Industry Alliance, as saying, without elaborating how.
"China's smart vehicle industry is undergoing a rapid phase of growth. It has had the support of ministries and commissions, but since the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) released a draft plan in January on pushing the development of smart cars, the industry has been promoted to a national strategy," Dai said.
"The emphasis that China has put on smart cars is comparable even with the strategic support for new energy. Previously, the smart car industry was only a branch of new energy," Dai added.
The country will cover 90 percent of its big cities and highways with a wireless network that can support smart cars by 2020 and ensure product supervision and information security, the NDRC said in its January plan.
The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport said in its document on encouraging companies to participate in road testing that "Beijing has businesses spread through the whole industrial chain of automated driving, and the city will give greater support to the development and commercialization of autonomous vehicles," Xinhua reported earlier.
Chinese companies Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, as well as newcomers, Meituan and JD and Didichuxing, are making big strides in competing with their American counterparts.
The US has more than 40 companies that have been granted licenses for driverless cars, and at least 10 of them are Chinese companies or have a Chinese background, news site 21jingji.com reported.
However, in terms of autonomous driving technology and industrial distribution, China still lags behind the US, Dai said.
Most China-produced smart vehicles cannot meet level three of the five-tier hierarchy that the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) in the US has developed for categorizing driverless systems, Jia Xinguang, an expert at the China Automobile Dealers Association, told the Global Times on Monday.
Level three means the car can handle dynamic driving tasks, such as steering, braking, and changing lanes. The driver will respond to the car if it signals that it needs help.
However, Dai said that smart vehicles are an integrated industry cluster, involving not only automobiles but also Internet and telecommunication, which are two areas that China has prominent advantages in.