Written by Staff Writer, CNN
Sometimes, man has simply got to roll with the punches. A recent Business Insider report might just prove that, with a look at a fleet of automated truck trailers shuttling the scenery from inland China to the country’s booming technology hub in the east.
The colorful, minimalistic trailers bear some striking similarity to Google car prototypes that had been mounted with “self-driving” tech, only to be pulled over and quizzed on their aims just months later.
The robo-trucks — chosen by Chinese tech giant Zhejiang Geely Holding Group — have, in fact, been deployed on the streets of Hangzhou in the past few months. They’re controlled remotely by Geely’s SoBow division, which specializes in developing driverless technology.
The concepts are a long way from an electric-powered Toyota JNR, with an autopilot function reminiscent of the Toyotas on test tracks around the world. But perhaps the most telling component to note here is the robot driver sitting at the wheel.
The Waymo self-driving car and prototype at Google Inc’s Palo Alto campus in California, in 2011. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
These cars can decide to avoid a traffic hazard (which has already saved one driver’s life), or they can “rotate through lanes, control speed and navigate tight corners,” according to an interview with Alain Leung, VP for SoBow. “This all depends on (the car’s) automation system and how it is wired together with the infrastructure,” he adds.
Since transporting cargo is the company’s primary mission, SoBow makes its prototypes readily available to all Chinese carriers and joint ventures, from state-owned enterprises to startups.
Self-driving, former robo-car prototype
SoBow test-drove its first truck more than 10 years ago — with a human driver in the cabin at all times — and has continued to refine the technology since then. Two so-called “protege” trucks were set loose across China in 2015, the company’s CEO, Li Yinan, explained on the Bloomberg tech blog.
Though the first “winners” of the Chinese shipping market seem to have been employed by professional clients, there’s no shortage of potential customers for autonomous trucks — including the government and country’s financial service giants.
China’s Ministry of Transport, for example, has one of China’s biggest navies and a robust public transport network. One of the government’s main objectives is to ensure that these industries keep growing — and will therefore continue to need growing numbers of trucks.
Delaware-based platooning: Truck interspersed with the driver
The government’s also at pains to upgrade the country’s inadequate infrastructure and highways, something which the state of SoBow has a hand in. After establishing a long-range route-planning network in 2012, it’s been working on developing a high-speed freight lane system with a product called the Southern Expressways Consortium.
While fully-autonomous vehicles are currently considered by some to be best suited for urban environments, which are free of congestion and others, Li doesn’t see this as the case in China.
“Besides, there are also (customer) concerns about passenger safety — in China, for instance, Chinese females are disproportionately more likely to be killed in traffic accidents than other demographic groups,” he explains.
“Therefore, in order to increase safety rates, we installed artificial intelligence systems that can monitor road conditions in real time. Our automated trucks now (can) more or less avoid car accidents altogether.”