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Self-Driving Cars in China – The Need for Regulatory Development

On July 5, Yanhong Li, the CEO of Baidu, a company known as “China’s Google,” spoke to attendees of the Artificial Intelligence Development Conference in Beijing via live video from inside a self-driving car as it drove around the city. ((Sherisse Pham and Serena Dong, Tech CEO’s Self-Driving Car Ride Upsets Chinese Traffic Cops, CNN (July 6, 2017), http://money.cnn.com/2017/07/06/technology/baidu-robin-li-driverless-car-illegal/index.html.)). However, Li was later warned and investigated by the police for an alleged violation of traffic laws, as, at present, China does not allow self-driving cars to be operated on public roads. ((Id.)) This incident reflects the need for legislation on self-driving cars in China.

Although the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) has not legislated on the operation of self-driving cars on public roads, it is taking serious steps to test self-driving cars. For example, the PRC has set up several testing sites for self-driving cars, including the China Intelligent Vehicle Research Center in Changshu, Jiangsu Province, Intelligent Vehicle Testing Center at Tongji University in Shanghai, and the National Intelligent Vehicle Pilot Laboratory in Shanghai. ((Mark Schaub, Self-driving Car Road Tests in China – How to get on the Road to Progress, King & Wood Mallesons (Sept. 15, 2017), http://www.chinalawinsight.com/2017/09/articles/corporate/self-driving-car-road-tests-in-china-how-to-get-on-the-road-to-progress/.)) Other testing sites are expected to be established in Beijing, Wuhan, Guiyang and many other cities. ((Id.))

China has comprehensive regulations on the testing of vehicles before they can be launched in the market. However, it is still unclear how these standards will be applied to self-driving cars. In June, the PRC Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Standardization Administration of China, both constituent agencies of the PRC State Council, the country’s primary regulatory body, issued the Draft Guidelines for Establishing the National Intelligent Vehicles’ Industry Standards (“Draft Guidelines”). ((Id.)) The Draft Guidelines established industry standards for some mature technologies, such as blind-spot monitoring systems and electronic stability control systems. ((Id.)) However, most core technologies for self-driving vehicles, such as the systems for horizontal and vertical control, still lack established industry standards and further research and discussion is much needed. ((See Schaub, supra note 3.))

In terms of the legislation on self-driving cars, there is much for China to learn from other countries. For example, one of the important factors necessary to ensure the safety of self-driving vehicles is the smooth switching between autonomous-driving and human-driving. Nevada and California both require that self-driving cars be equipped with a convenient switching system to allow the driver to take control of the car when the self-driving system fails or an unexpected emergency occurs. ((See 2013 Nev. Stat. 377; 2012 Cal Stat. ch. 570.)) Additionally, California requires that all self-driving cars have an alert system to remind the driver of switching to human driving when problems occur in the automatic driving system. ((2012 Cal Stat. ch. 570.))

The most significant obstacle for the launch of self-driving vehicles in China is testing on public roads. Although China has several testing centers for self-driving cars, public road testing is still not allowed. Before rolling out road tests, China can look to past experiences of Western countries to establish appropriately demanding testing standards. Primarily, the testing must be conducted on specified routes. For example, in Australia, public testing must be pre-approved and the application must clearly identify the intended testing route. ((See Schaub, supra note 3.)) Additionally, the public roads utilized for testing must simulate real traffic conditions in order to examine whether the self-driving cars can operate safely under complex traffic conditions.

In addition, many jurisdictions have very high standards for the drivers who conduct autonomous vehicle testing. For example, California, Michigan and Nevada all require that the driver must be able to take immediate control of the testing vehicle in an emergency. ((See 2013 Nav. SB 313; 2012 Cal SB 1298; 2013 Mich. SB 169.)) Similarly, the U.K. requires that the driver must have proficient driving skills, including the ability to switch between modes and to deal with emergencies during testing. ((See Department of Transportation of the U.K., Driverless Cars in the UK: a Regulatory Review, (Feb. 11, 2015), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/driverless-cars-in-the-uk-a-regulatory-review.))

In contrast, China does not have laws or regulations regarding testing of self-driving cars on public roads. The Chinese government’s conservative attitude on this issue is understandable given the complex traffic conditions of the public roads in China. On the other hand, precisely because of the complexity of this issue, it is crucial for self-driving cars to pass through public-road testing. China can learn from California, a state that legislated on the testing of self-driving cars and approved many manufacturers’ testing applications, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Google, Tesla, and Baidu. ((See Schaub, supra note 3.)) These companies’ success on public road testing can provide some confidence for the testing of self-driving cars in other countries and areas. Although China has made great progress in the development of self-driving cars, the testing of these cars on public roads remains the greatest obstacle to overcome before they can achieve commercialization.