China’s “Tesla” Approach to Technology

When managing a country of 1.38 billion people—one in which 260,000 people die in car accidents each year—the Chinese mentality is that you can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

That is, rather than waiting for the perfect self-driving cars to arrive, Chinese leaders will likely look for ways to deploy more limited autonomous vehicles in controlled settings. That deployment will have the side effect of leading to more exponential growth in the accumulation of data and a corresponding advance in the power of the AI behind it.

Key to that incremental deployment will be the construction of new infrastructure specifically made to accommodate autonomous vehicles. In the United States, in contrast, we build self-driving cars to adapt to our existing roads because we assume the roads can’t change. In China, there’s a sense that everything can change—including current roads. Indeed, local officials are already modifying existing highways, reorganizing freight patterns, and building entirely new cities that will be tailor-made for driverless cars.

Highway regulators in the Chinese province of Zhejiang have already announced plans to build the country’s first intelligent superhighway, infrastructure outfitted from the start for autonomous and electric vehicles. The plan calls for integrating sensors and wireless communication among the road, cars, and drivers to increase speeds by 20 to 30 percent and dramatically reduce fatalities on the road. The superhighway will build photovoltaic solar panels into the road surface, energy that feeds into charging stations for electric vehicles. In the long term, the goal is to be able to continuously charge electric vehicles while they drive. If successful, the project will accelerate deployment of autonomous and electric vehicles, leveraging the fact that long before autonomous AI can handle the chaos of urban driving, it can easily deal with highways—and gather more data in the process.

But Chinese officials aren’t just adapting existing roads to autonomous vehicles. They’re building entirely new cities around the technology. Sixty miles south of Beijing sits the Xiong’an New Area, a collection of sleepy villages where the central government has ordered the construction of a showcase city for technological progress and environmental sustainability. The city is projected to take in $583 billion worth of infrastructure spending and reach a population of 2.5 million, nearly as many people as Chicago. The idea of building a new Chicago from the ground up is fairly unthinkable in the United States, but in China it’s just one piece of the government’s urban planning toolkit.

Xiong’an is poised to be the world’s first city built specifically to accommodate autonomous vehicles. Baidu has signed agreements with the local government to build an “AI City” with a focus on traffic management, autonomous vehicles, and environmental protection. Adaptations could include sensors in the cement, traffic lights equipped with computer vision, intersections that know the age of pedestrians crossing them, and dramatic reductions in space needed for parked cars. When everyone is hailing his or her own autonomous taxi, why not turn those parking lots into urban parks?

Taking things a step further, brand-new developments like Xiong’an could even route the traffic in their city centers underground, reserving the heart of the city for pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s a system that would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement into a world of human drivers prone to human errors that clog up tunnels. But by combining augmented roads, controlled lighting, and autonomous vehicles, an entire underground traffic grid could be running at the speed of highways while life aboveground moves at a more human pace.

There’s no guarantee that all of these high-flying AI amenities will be rolled out smoothly— some of China’s technologically themed developments have flopped, and some brand-new cities have struggled to attract residents. But the central government has placed high priority on the project, and if successful, cities like Xiong’an will grow up together with autonomous AI. They will benefit from the efficiencies AI brings and will feed ever more data back into the algorithms. America’s current infrastructure means that autonomous AI must adapt to and conquer the cities around it.

In China, the government’s proactive approach is to transform that conquest into coevolution.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Mar 07, 2019 in All Posts AI & China

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