While Google makes headlines with its driverless car and even manages to lobby Nevada to legalize driverless cars on the public road - China quietly pushes ahead on its own.
China Daily reports that on the 14th of July a Hongqui HQ3 travelled 286km in three hours 20 minutes without a driver at the wheel on an expressway linking Changsha and Wuhan, the capitals of Hunan and Hubei provinces
A Hongqui HQ3 of the type used in the project
The project is being developed by the National University of Defense Technology.
One of the research team is reported as saying:
"We only set a maximum speed and then left everything to the car itself. It knew the speed limits, traffic patterns, lane changes and roads using video cameras and radar sensors to detect other cars. It was all controlled by a command center in the trunk."
Technical details are limited but it is claimed that GPS wasn't used to navigate the car and it relied on its sensors not only to stay on the road but to work out which road to stay on. Unlike Google's the Chinese driverless car uses computer vision to navigate aided by laser range finders. As a result it cannot drive and night and so the entire journey had to be completed during daylight. It also encountered some problems with fog and indistinct road markings. It could be argued that relying on computer vision is a more sophisticated approach than using GPS and laser range finders but without more information it is difficult to be sure. As well as just driving in a single lane the car overtook other cars a reported 67 times at an average of 87km/h.
Although no reason for building the driverless car has been given the statistics stress that "its" reaction times are around 40ms compared to 500ms for a human and so safety seems to be a concern. However Google's car has logged 140,000 miles with only two minor accidents to its name and one of those was caused by a human driver. It will take some effort to match this performance.
China is late into the driverless car race and members of the team are aware of the doubt that surrounds the project because of the speed that they have been able to ... well.. it has to be said.. get up to speed.
"Some foreign experts asked me directly whether the artificial intelligence system was really developed with our own proprietary technologies, while some humorously asked where the three tiny robots in charge of the accelerator, brakes and direction hid in the car!"
The project isn't over and now they are co-operating with China's First Auto Works to produce an even better and perhaps commercial version.
Sebastian Thrun on Google's driverless car
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