When it comes to spurring the development of cutting-edge technologies, the Chinese government is rather pragmatic in its policymaking process. In the field of autonomous driving, the country has made some big strides in defining the parameters and limitations for service providers, removing regulatory ambiguity and granting industry players the freedom to test the nascent technology.
The trial guidelines, unveiled by the Ministry of Transport recently, target AV services like robotaxis, self-driving trucks and robobuses. The release arrived about 16 months after the department began seeking public opinions on the regulatory framework, and policymakers have reached a consensus that self-driving vehicles are subject to rigorous surveillance measures to ensure utmost safety.
Prior to the introduction of the nationwide guidelines, policymaking for AVs in China had been playing out in a more decentralized fashion, with local governments formulating their own rules for service providers on their turf. Major tech clusters like Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, for example, have been frontrunners in allowing companies to test AVs with minimum human interference.
There are a couple of noteworthy points from the new guidelines, and a close read reveals some interesting contrasts between the perspectives of Chinese and U.S. regulators regarding the nascent technology.
For one, the rules stipulate that AVs, regardless of their level of automation, can only operate within designated areas. Autonomous buses, for example, should run in “enclosed or roads with relatively simple conditions.” The restriction sounds slightly more relaxed for robotaxis, which are allowed under “controlled and safe traffic conditions.” Robo trucks have the most explicit restrictions that limit them to only “point-to-point highways or good traffic conditions.”
Aside from obtaining permits for their AVs, operators should also apply for the relevant licenses required for public transportation service providers. AVs should be labeled clearly to alert other drivers on the road.
The guidelines make only one reference to software, mandating that over-the-air upgrades adhere to regulations from the Ministry of Industry and Information to ensure their safety.
The rules also specify the requirements for safety operators at various degrees of automation. Autonomous cargo trucks should “in principle” be equipped with in-car safety operators. Robotaxis with advanced automation should have one in-car safety operator. And robotaxis with full automation can be monitored by remote safety operators who should not oversee more than three vehicles, provided that the cars run in only certain areas.
Unlike U.S. regulators, which require reporting by AV operators in the event of accidents, China applies a more active, surveillance-based approach. According to the guidelines laid out by China’s Ministry of Transport, AVs are expected to monitor and store the status of the vehicles while also transmitting essential data in real-time to both the service providers and the relevant local regulatory authorities. They should also establish an agreement with the vehicle manufacturers and safety operators on the respective party’s scope of responsibilities.
So what information do the regulators expect to receive in case of an accident? The rules mandate that the AVs have a minimum of 90 seconds of recorded event data, which should include the vehicle’s license plate number, control mode, location, speed, acceleration and direction. It should also detail the car’s perception of the environment and its response thereafter, signal status, a 360-degree camera view of the car’s surroundings, and remote orders or malfunction diagnoses, if any.
Most notably, the data should also include in-car video and audio recordings of driver behavior and human-machine interaction. Cruise and Waymo, in comparison, only record videos and only activate audio recordings during live support calls. The audio requirement for AVs isn’t that surprising after all, given that Chinese ride-sharing services like Didi already continuously record in-car conversations for safety purposes, a requirement that has raised concerns over passenger privacy.