A truism developed at the start of the self-driving era: Cars needed to do the hard work themselves.
Developers decided it would be a strategic mistake to rely on information coming from outside the vehicle. Sensing and computing needed to be done on board. That approach is starting to undergo substantial change—but only in select locations.
Enabled by advances in 5G technology, Chinese autonomous-vehicle developers have sprung ahead in integrating information from roadway sensors into the decision-making algorithms that drive autonomous vehicles.
It's a prime example of the power of so-called V2X—or vehicle-to-everything—communications in which vehicles, roadway infrastructure and pedestrians can transmit critical safety information among each other.
"It's fair to say that China has positioned itself to be able to take a slightly different technological and business approach to the AV space," said Nathan Picarsic, CEO of Horizon Advisory, a consulting firm that examines the commercial and security implications of China's approach to global competition. "You see much more discussion of V2X in their AV discussions than you necessarily do in U.S. experimentation."
The broad promise of these V2X communications has been recognized in U.S. safety circles for nearly two decades; transportation officials say thousands of lives otherwise lost in traffic crashes could be saved, regardless of whether drivers were automated or human. But in the U.S, V2X has languished.
Chinese companies have harnessed that potential and deployed V2X systems, with cellular underpinnings, tailored for AV applications.
"When we're discussing the automotive industry, it's one of the most global industries and we don't usually see a difference in a car bought in Japan, Europe or China; it's basically the same vehicle platform," said Magnus Gunnarsson, head of connected-vehicle product management at Ericsson. "But when it comes to highly autonomous driving, there are differences that come with how different governments and states are looking into connected infrastructure. This is a really important part of the game."
Baidu, perhaps as much as any company in China, shows how that game plays out on the road.
How it works
An ambulance roared through a crowded Beijing intersection. Blocked by a truck on its left and other traffic, a Baidu robotaxi approaching the same intersection did not detect the emergency vehicle until the last moment.
The situation resulted in nothing more than a hard-braking incident.
In a simulated re-creation of the episode, the vehicle incorporates V2X information from infrastructure into its path planning. As the ambulance approaches, the robotaxi methodically slows down and allows it to pass.
It's a matter of both safety and passenger comfort, says Baidu spokesperson Tony Peng, and it shows how important beyond-line-of-sight information provided by roadside sensing can be, along with the more-established sensors such as lidar, radar and cameras.
Baidu has integrated V2X into its plans. Currently, it uses V2X capability in 56 intersections in Shanghai, 28 intersections in Beijing and several more in Guangzhou. Roadside sensing equipment at each typical intersection consists of two lidar units, four fish-eye cameras and eight straight-ahead cameras.