Dawn of driverless minibuses in China

The existence of autonomous vehicles is nothing new. What we haven’t seen is a vehicle that took the wheel entirely on its own – unless you count a racing car in a film last year.

Now, in what would have been an unthinkable last decade, the realisation of driverless vehicles is becoming a reality. The nation of China is perhaps behind the curve as a giant of auto manufacturing, but it is certainly leading the charge to bring driverless vehicles to the masses.

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According to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, the nation’s National Development and Reform Commission on Thursday began the testing of driverless minibuses across a four-mile area of Beijing, the Chinese capital. According to Xinhua, the minibuses used the sensors and software developed by Chinese internet giant Baidu, part of an industry seeking to work out kinks before commercialising the technology.

Xinhua reported that over 3,000 autonomous drivers attended training courses overseen by local authorities to prove their skills and equipment. The first new trainees were dispatched to the busy Pudong financial district and will run routes until November. The project aims to pave the way for more driverless buses and taxis on China’s roads.

While testing does not mean you can start hiring autonomous drivers in Beijing, the first minibuses to deploy driverless technology were created by a Chinese company called eBus, which now operates a fleet of trucks and buses across the country.

In a separate deal, China’s BAIC Motor Company (which also counts Toyota Motor Corporation as a partner) announced an $11.8bn (£9.5bn) partnership with US group Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet. According to the Beijing News, the partnership “should enable the development of new services that rely on autonomous vehicles”, which would in turn enhance their “role in the Chinese market”. BAIC has already begun testing autonomous cars on its own roads and highways, the newspaper reported.

The deal could see the alliance step up production on its fleet of 20 driverless vehicles, which are being tested in California.

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