China's UISEE takes different tack to speed up autonomous cars

August 22, 2018 14:29
UISEE's chief eco-innovation chief Wei Qiu expects self-driving technology will be deployed in large-scale commercial services first before it is used for public transportation. Photo: HKEJ, UISEE

Amid the race to bring driverless cars to the public, Beijing-based "unicorn" UISEE has suggested a faster approach to commercialize autonomous vehicles.

At the recent 2018 Forbes China Innovation Summit in Chengdu, UISEE's chief eco-innovation chief Wei Qiu told the Hong Kong Economic Journal in an interview that the startup is focusing its driverless-car development efforts on commercial services, partnering with city commercial facilities such as airports.

China has become a major staging ground for autonomous cars, one of the key sectors identified in the “Made in China 2025” program to transform the country into a world leader in innovation. Already, major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have eased rules to allow road tests for autonomous cars.

Started in 2016 by veteran engineer Gansha Wu, UISEE specializes in driverless-car technologies. Its name is an acronym for Utilization, Indiscriminate, Safety, Efficiency, and Environment.

Instead of aiming for public roads, UISEE is working with local governments and large corporations to deploy its driverless-car models in semi-open environments such as industrial parks, tourist spots and campuses.

Last year the startup cooperated with the Guangzhou-Baiyun International Airport to provide a driverless shuttle service, which helped passengers traveling between the terminal and the parking lot during the 2017 China Airport Service Conference.

The company also picked the Raffles City in Hangzhou as a test site to deploy driverless vehicles in a large-scale integrated commercial real estate setting. Its units transported passengers from buildings to the exact location of their cars in the parking lot, a rare instance of cooperation between driverless technology and a commercial real estate in China.

By choosing to work in semi-open environments, UISEE believes it could deploy driverless cars to roads more quickly.

The company's technology is fitted for transport services in airports such as terminal shuttles or baggage carriers. While such services require two to three drivers per unit per day because of the long hours of operation, “our self-driving cars can solve the manpower problem, especially in places with high labor costs like Hong Kong”, Qiu told HKEJ.

“Laser radar used in autonomous cars costs about US$70,000 to US$80,000... [With the high cost structure], autonomous driving technology is not commercially viable for the mass market transportation sector,” he noted.

But it has other uses that can make it affordable, such as in a commercial service area, Qiu said.

Self-driving technology is expected to be deployed in large-scale commercial services first, then in public transportation, and other “last-mile” services like autonomous valet parking.

After that, the cost structure of the technology will be driven down due to the increasing application, and then the technology will be available for public consumption.

“It may take 10 years to bring the driverless cars to the public," he said. "That's when you will see robot-taxis on the roads.”

The feasibility of driverless vehicles has been thrown into doubt following several accidents, such as an incident in March when a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

“Safety is the biggest issue of autonomous transportation services,” Qiu said.

In the wake of accidents involving autonomous vehicles, which were widely covered by media, people tend to exaggerate their view of the risk in using such cars in comparison to the safety level of more traditional vehicles driven by humans.

"The traditional automobile industry has spent a decade educating the public that cars are relatively safe. As for the car with a ‘virtual pilot’, it needs time and data to verify whether it can guarantee driving safety in a complex urban environment," Qui said.

He also believes that laws and regulations need to keep pace with the development of the technology and the industry.

"The current practice of the national government is to launch pilot programs in specific regions and areas, loosening up to some extent to allow startups to explore. As the technology evolves and the exploration reaches a certain extent, laws and regulations will be launched, and the process will not happen overnight," he said.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 22

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal