Pony.ai’s self-driving car is running along the road during a test run in Guangzhou, China on February 1, 2018.
VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images
A panel of industry leaders told CNBC that the coronavirus pandemic could boost China’s new modes of transportation, including making autonomous driving more mainstream.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has accelerated the commercialization of self-driving cars (or unmanned drones). These were used to transport goods, medicines and even passengers to and from the quarantine zone. During the Virtual CNBC Evolve Global Summit on Wednesday.
The Guangzhou-based company became a hot topic when it announced the concept of a manned drone in 2016.
“We are working with Chinese government officials to accelerate the commercialization of our products,” said Xu, who will meet with regulators twice and obtain passenger drone certification within two years. He added that he was aiming for that.
Drone maker EHang’s two-seater autonomous aircraft, the Ehang 216, will be seen during a presentation in Vienna, Austria, on April 4, 2019.
Leonhard Foeger | Reuters
Pony.ai, a Chinese self-driving car startup, ferry some of its automated guided vehicles to areas affected by Covid to transport the supplies they need. According to founder and CEO James Peng, he showed people how new technologies can be used to combat pandemics.
“After the post-pandemic era, people are accustomed to and comfortable with fully autonomous vehicles, and we can imagine that we are ready to drive it,” he added.
Increasing demand for urban mobility
While the pandemic has made many commuters wary of public transport, some commuters have turned to personal mobile devices for travel.
According to CEO Yan Li, Chinese electric scooter maker Niu Technologies “has great demand for individual urban mobility devices.” He said the company shipped about 150,000 electric scooters in the first quarter.
According to Lee, this trend is likely to continue after the pandemic. He said Chinese people are more likely to continue commuting on scooters because they have more freedom than public transport.
“There is no tendency for people to return to public transport. Many people are beginning to get used to their individual mobility devices, which I think is a good trend for us,” Li added.
According to industry leaders, mainstream adoption of self-driving cars faces many challenges. Pony.ai Chief Peng raised three issues: technological progress, regulation, and consumer acceptance.
“From a technical point of view, I think we have made great strides in the last few years,” he said. Peng added that the company has a fully autonomous driving test permit in California and is looking to get some in China as well.
Self-driving cars have made many advances over the years as companies repeatedly test their technologies to address potential problems and prevent accidents. Still, safety questions from the general public and regulators are a major obstacle to mainstream adoption.
Regulations are the “biggest bottleneck” when it comes to unmanned passenger drones, according to EHang’s Xu.
“Because there are no regulations so far. In the past, there was no priority to allow AAV to fly in urban areas,” he said.
“Currently, we’ve processed more than 4,000 trial flights in about 43 cities in eight countries, and the situation is becoming more compelling,” Xu added.
Persuading passengers to use either an automated guided vehicle or a self-driving passenger drone is still a major obstacle.
“Before that, it takes time for customers to feel (and understand) that autonomous driving is actually a safe and convenient mode of transportation,” Penn said.
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