China’s robocars are being lapped by their U.S. competitors

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The autonomous Lincoln MKZ started turning left at a Beijing intersection when a speeding truck aggressively cut in front of it. Sensors in the car detected the approach and instantly froze it in place.

 But that put the Lincoln directly in the truck’s path, so Baidu Inc. engineer Sun Lei grabbed the steering wheel, spun it to the right and floored the accelerator to get out of harm’s way. The truck zoomed by as Sun’s colleague in the passenger seat calmly took notes on a tablet computer—just another learning exercise for the self-driving fleet being tested around the nation.

“We hope to see more interventions during the road tests so that we can improve our technology,” said Calvin Shang, general manager of strategy and operations for Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group. “It won’t help if you only run the cars on simple routes even for 10,000 or even 100 million miles.”

Though disaster was averted, the incident shows how China’s push into autonomous vehicles is barely out of first gear, with only a handful of cities allowing limited trials by search-engine giant Baidu, startup Pony.ai, trucker TuSimple Inc. and others since last year. Domestic and foreign testers are putting cars, buses, trucks and delivery vans through self-driving trials to teach them how to navigate the notoriously congested streets of the world’s biggest auto market.

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