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.
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.
This information is transmitted via cellular methods today, and 5G technology will further enhance the speed and lower the latency in which these critical messages can be transmitted.
In May, the same month in which Baidu started China’s first paid AV ride-hailing service, the company partnered with Tsinghua University to establish an institute for AI Industry Research devoted to exploring 5G-enabled V2X for Level 4 automated driving.
“Apollo Air [V2X technology] enables a high degree of coordination between sensor-less vehicles, smart roads and data clouds through a series of miniature roadside sensors with 5G and V2X wireless technology,” wrote Ji Tao, general manager of intelligent transportation product deployment at Baidu.
In terms of operations, Baidu says it has seen immediate benefits from its autonomous operations that use cellular V2X. The time robotaxis spend stuck in congestion has been reduced by 30 percent. Interventions and disengagements have decreased by 62 percent.
From a safety perspective, on-board sensors can result only in a certain level of improvements before they plateau. To achieve Vision Zero goals of truly eliminating all deaths, Peng says, roadside sensors must be included.
For robotaxi companies, there may be financial advantages to including roadside sensing. Baidu’s fifth-generation robotaxis cost approximately $75,000, and the on-board sensors constitute about a third of that cost. Roadside sensing may offer a chance to essentially offload the cost of some sensors from on board the vehicle to the infrastructure itself.
“China presents an ideal scenario,” Peng said. “It’s good at pushing a new era of infrastructure that’s tech-driven, including 5G and AI, charging stations and smart transportation.”
While the U.S. Congress negotiates the final details of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, China finalized an infrastructure blueprint long ago.
In 2013, the country implemented its “Made in China 2025” plan that aspired to make China a leader in focus areas that include advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, robotics and automation.
Two years later, China’s leaders identified 5G as another key technology in which they sought leadership, and they honed plans to research 5G networks and usher in 5G technology. Commercialization, not just research, has always been a key goal.
“China wasn’t necessarily a leader in 3G or 4G, but the lead they think they can seize in 5G is a function of getting real-world applications quicker, and that’s where the automotive piece of this is incredibly interesting,” Picarsic said. “China has proliferated experimentation through a host of pilot projects and pilot cities for autonomy and AV use cases. With a built-out 5G ecosystem, they’re likely to get ahead of the United States and the Western world in terms of rolling out ‘smart city’ ecosystems that position China for more-rapid deployment of AV technology.”
China has installed more than 500,000 base stations that support 5G, according to Counterpoint Research, and the consulting firm estimates the country’s top three telecom operators — China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom — will invest approximately $184 billion in 5G networks by 2025.
Counterpoint projects that 25 percent of vehicles sold in 2025 worldwide will include embedded 5G connectivity. The firm says the “majority” of those will be sold in China.
For autonomous vehicles in particular, 5G offers not just convenience connectivity, but — at least in its current state — an approach to operations in China that’s distinct from the rest of the world.