mobility goes east German car companies head to China to innovate

Faced with too many roadblocks in Germany, Audi, BMW and VW are taking their innovations to the People's Republic, where government support gets things moving.
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No jams Quelle: Getty Images

No jams

(Foto: Getty Images)

In a city of more than six million people, you’d expect pretty serious traffic jams, especially since the number of cars driving in the northeast Chinese metropolis of Wuxi has doubled since 2011, to 1.8 million. But the drive is a breeze through this part of the city center, which doubles as a testing ground for future mobility.

The vehicles and infrastructure are all connected wirelessly over LTE, sharing information about traffic and warning of any metaphorical bumps in the road. Audi has brought its traffic light information technology to Wuxi, where cars communicate with the intersections to know whether the light’s about to change.

Not only is access to the Chinese market essential for any automotive company to succeed; many German companies are finding entry to China’s testing grounds essential, to prove their innovations work. The Chinese government’s support of autonomous vehicle research is giving the green light to companies more accustomed to seeing red in Germany.

At the Sino-German summit Monday, carmaker BMW signed a framework with China’s Brilliance Group to expand their joint venture, while Volkswagen and China’s Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group signed a memorandum of understanding on a joint R&D center and a car platform.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang will see self-driving cars from BMW, VW and Daimler in action at Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld on Tuesday. A memorandum of understanding between the two countries shown to Handelsblatt states that networked and autonomous driving will play a major role in the future of mobility.

A meeting of the minds. Quelle: action press

A meeting of the minds.

(Foto: action press)

Just last week, China gave Daimler the go-ahead to begin testing its self-driving cars on the streets of Beijing. The Mercedes-Benz parent is the first international carmaker to earn the right to test Level 4 autonomous vehicles – the second-highest classification for self-driving cars, where a human is required only in case of emergency – on public streets.

Daimler is also working with Baidu, a Google competitor, to produce an open-source autonomous driving platform called Apollo that one day, might become the auto industry’s equivalent to the Android operating system for phones. Germany’s Bosch and Continental are part of the consortium.

Germany has some testing grounds for autonomous cars, but letting them loose on public roads is miles away. The transport ministry would like to set up 14 testing areas, but carmakers are getting antsy and taking their toys to countries that will let them play.

In Wuxi, one-sixth of the city’s intersections will be outfitted with the smart traffic light technology from Audi, China Mobile and Huawei by the end of this month, with the goal of having the entire city covered by 2019. Audi plans to expand its R&D division in China from 280 to 650 employees, 200 of which will be dedicated to self-driving cars.

Coordinating the many players involved in a networked traffic system becomes much easier with a strong central government, Xiong Wei of Huawei pointed out. An Audi manager in China said, “Germany could do so much more. But we discuss everything to death.”

Mr. Xiong says the goal is to create an ecosystem for autonomous driving in China that can be deployed around the world, with participants determining sustainable standards together. In addition to Audi, Huawei is also working with Volvo and Ford. The government’s goal is for 10 percent of cars to be networked by 2020, and by 2025, a quarter of all cars should be at Level 4 or Level 5 on the autonomous driving scale.

To get to that stage, either automobiles must get smart enough to be able to reliably make decisions by themselves, or the infrastructure must interact with all vehicles to self-direct traffic. China prefers the control of the second option, but the IT ministry is keeping its options open. Local trials, like those in Wuxi, are likely to be deployed nationwide if successful.

The benefits of streets ruled by autonomous vehicles rather than fallible humans are clear: fewer traffic jams, better pollution control, fewer crashes. But only 45 percent of Germans said they would hop in a self-driving car, according to a survey from the Boston Consulting Group. In comparison, 75 percent of Chinese respondents said they were up for it.

Dana Heide also contributed to this report. Sha Hua is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Beijing. Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: hua@handelsblatt.com and grace.dobush@gmail.com

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