Autonomous Driving: Japan and China Drive the Future “Hands-Off”


Asia rules the mobility revolution. In Japan, Nissan has launched automated cars on the market while in China, fleets of self-driving vehicles, developed by Baidu, are expected to hit the road soon. The future of hands-off driving is getting closer


Until a few years ago, news about cars driving themselves without the human intervention would sound like science fiction but they do not even make the news anymore. Albeit with a backup driver, in the United States, autonomous taxis have already been tested on the road by General Motors Co. and Waymo, just to name two.


The self-driving business promises to be worth $500 billion by 2030. The race is open and Beijing and Tokyo are competing for supremacy.


But now it is Asia that is taking the autonomous driving lead, with Chinese Internet giant Baidu surpassing Google in the self-driving market and the Land of the Rising Sun planning to launch a completely automated service by 2020 when Tokyo will host the Olympic games.


autonomous driving in japan and china - cars - cifnews

© 123rf. Autonomous driving opens new windows of opportunity for both Japanese and Chinese tech companies. The time spent in self-driving cars now become a next-level resource.


Last May, the Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan revealed that from this fall it will start offering a system that allows navigated highway driving and hands-off single-lane driving. Nissan will indeed launch the ProPilot 2.0 system, a second-generation update of the current ProPilot system, which has been installed in 350,000 vehicles worldwide since its market launch in 2016.

The ProPilot 2.0 system will allow vehicles to take passengers from the entrance to the motorway exit. The car will be able to change lanes, overtake other cars, and take the desired exit independently, without the need of the driver intervention or of him keeping the hands on the steering wheel. Therefore, unlike the old system, the driver can set an arrival destination and wait for the car to drive passengers to the desired location.

Nevertheless, the month of May also marked another important step toward the self-driving industry in Japan. On the eve of its debut on the stock market, Uber closed a new round of funding with Toyota, SoftBank – a multinational financial holding company – and the car component company Denso. Uber collected $1 billion in order to increase collaboration in the advanced sector of autonomous driving, and in mobility services.

Both Toyota and Uber aim to introduce autonomous vehicles starting from 2021. As for SoftBank, it continues to finance other companies that promote new mobility services, including Didi Chuxing Technology in China, the Indian Ola, and Grab Taxi Holdings, stationed in Singapore.


“There are great opportunities surrounding the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. This means there is a possibility that the practical application of automatic driving will be accelerated in the next couple of years,” said Koichi Iguchi, KPMG’s Head of Global Strategy Group.


In addition, the autonomous guide can count on a new alliance, all Japanese. Recently, manufacturers and tech companies of the Rising Sun are coming together to accelerate the development of driverless technology. These are Honda and Hino – a company specialized in commercial vehicles – that joined the Monet Technologies joint venture signed between SoftBank and Toyota.

The joint venture has set itself the goal of launching self-driving bus services in Japan starting in 2023, using the developments of the Toyota e-Palette concept, a square multipurpose vehicle similar to a shuttle. The same vehicle that will serve as a means of transport for international delegations attending the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Japan is going big on the self-driving industry, but China is still the real forerunner. Although still behind in terms of developing appropriate technologies compared to other countries, the Dragon aims to put 30 million self-driving vehicles on the road within the next ten years.

Research published by McKinsey shows that in the coming years, China will be the main market for the autonomous vehicle industry, especially in the transport services sector, which is expected to represent 55% of the entire market in 2040. According to the research, in the Middle Kingdom, the spread of self-driving vehicles could gradually start in 2023, reaching full development in 2032, with strong penetration in the entire market and reaching profits of over $60 billion.


autonomous driving in japan and china - e-palette - toyota - cifnews

© Bloomberg. The Toyota e-Palette concept vehicle is displayed during the company’s press conference at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.


To ensure full development and wide penetration of this technology, the Beijing government has already taken measures to facilitate investments in the sector, meanwhile creating test areas for autonomous vehicles such as Jiading in Shanghai and Xiong’an outside Beijing.

In the game for the diffusion of large-scale production of autonomous vehicles in China, new commercial partnerships are forming, including the most important Chinese tech companies. Last year alone, for example, enterprises operating in the production of autonomous vehicles received over $7 billion in funding, and even giants like Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent decided to invest in the sector.

In 2017, Beijing was the first city in China to allow self-driving tests on public roads. Chinese push toward the driverless guide is going so far that even foreign companies have decided to start carrying out operations in the Celestial Empire to test their technology such as Waymo and Tesla, which have already based their companies in China.

While the world’s leading ridesharing platform Didi Chuxing has signed 12 partnerships with many car manufacturers in order to build a whole fleet of “robot taxis” for ride-hailing services without drivers, recently, the Chinese Chang’an Automobile went even further, making 55 self-driving cars moving together, thus setting a world record.


The Chinese development of self-driving vehicles is fully in line with the priorities of Beijing. The improvement of driverless mobility would allow the country to successfully combine three pillars of Xi Jinping’s New China such as AI, environmental protection, and the enhancement of the domestic automotive industry.


By the end of the year, a fleet of taxis without a driver is going to be a reality in the Dragon, in particular, in Changsha, a prefecture-town of six million inhabitants, capital of the Hunan region, thanks to the cooperation between the city authorities and the giant of the AI sector Baidu. Baidu and two local companies have started a joint venture to help promote the project, after the signing, in October, of a strategic agreement aimed at transforming Changsha into a model city for autonomous driving.

In recent years, Baidu has, in fact, made large investments in the field of self-driving vehicles. In 2017, it launched a platform called Apollo to coordinate efforts in the development of autonomous driving, to which more than 50 licenses have been granted for experimentation of road vehicles in cities such as Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, Changsha, and Baoding. Often called the “Android of the self-driving industry”, Apollo autonomous driving program has over 80 partners, including field leaders Bosch, Microsoft, and Blackberry.

Self-driving buses were developed jointly by Baidu and the bus manufacturer King Long United Automotive Industry. These models with a high degree of automation and without a steering wheel will be put into service in cities like Beijing, Xiongan, Shenzhen, and Tokyo in Japan too.

As reported by China News, the Chinese Internet giant has surpassed Google in self-driving cars and now even Huawei is reportedly developing driverless cars in partnership with various automakers as part of a push into artificial intelligence. So that Dmitri Dolgov, Google’s top executive, mentioned in an email that Google’s competitiveness was on the decline in the face of Chinese enterprises.


autonomous driving in japan and china - apollo - baidu - cifnews

© Sohu. Baidu aims to roll-out self-driving cars on motorways and open city roads in 2020, leveraging its Apollo’s collaborative ecosystem.


Both China and Japan are thus taking giant steps towards autonomous driving. For what concerns Japan, the use of automated cars is strongly influenced by its status as a rapidly aging society, where a quarter of the population is older than 65. And the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo represent a great opportunity for the Land of the Rising Sun, resulting in an actual acceleration in the application of self-driving systems.

In the People’s Republic, however, the environment for testing new hi-tech innovations is much favorable than other markets in the world. The Made in China 2025 plan, together with the government’s strong support, is going to make the country quickly moving up the ladder.

Therefore, while Japan aims to gain back its role in the hi-tech world, the self-driving industry is just another market in which the Dragon now strives to succeed with the greatest results. What is sure is that Asia is leading the hi-tech field once again, joining forces and reaching extraordinary results.

But the interest of Nissan and Baidu, and of Google as well, for the self-driving industry is not only related to the differentiation of their offer. Time spent in the car will also become a resource. The possibility of connecting will probably be managed through proprietary systems, rather than going through the “usual” devices. Therefore, the time spent in the car will soon turn into the next-level opportunity.


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