As outlined in Self Driving Cars in China: The Roadmap and the Risks, the Chinese government is pushing hard to develop a Chinese based self driving car. In reviewing China’s proposed legislative framework and recent books from China, we can see how China’s system offers unique advantages for developing fully autonomous vehicles.
China does not seem to have the atavistic fear of robots and AI common in the Western world. Recent surveys show 75% of Chinese car buyers have a favorable opinion of self driving vehicles, as opposed to only 50% in the U.S. More significant is that 60% of Chinese auto buyers believe developing self driving cars is a significant issue, as opposed to less than 20% in the U.S. and in Germany.
Fear of autonomous driving is not a factor in China. The issues in China are more direct. Is a self driving car available? Will it be available in a reasonable time frame? Will a self driving car work well? How much will it cost? Will the vehicle be owned by an individual or by a ride sharing entity or (in China) by some service owned or managed by the government? These are rational economic considerations, not gut level fear of robots and artificial intelligence.
A Chinese consumer may decide self driving cars are not an important issue because they rationally believe they will never happen. But they do not oppose self driving cars due to a fear of robot control. The Chinese are generally not in love with driving. Driving in China basically sucks, and if they can leave the driving to someone else, the Chinese are generally happy to do that. And if the someone else is a robot, they don’t care. The issue to the Chinese consumer is how much will that robot cost? [Editor’s Note: Peter Hessler’s book, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, makes for a great read on driving in China.]
The Chinese also do not generally make unreasonable requirements on the safety of a self driving car. In the U.S. and in Europe there is an unstated but very real demand that self driving cars be perfect. Every accident involving a self driving car is headline news and endlessly reported online. At the same time the 40,000 U.S. deaths and the ~25,000 EU deaths per year from human controlled driving are taken as business as usual.
The Chinese regulators and public make no such unreasonable demands. One goal of the Chinese government is for self driving cars to reduce the current very high Chinese passenger vehicle accident rate (~260,000 people die on China’s roads a year). However, the goal is to reduce the accident rate by a reasonable percentage. No one in China demands self driving cars be accident free. It is assumed they will NOT be accident free. The issue in China is whether the rate of accidents will be at an acceptable level or not. In China, it is assumed that the accident rate will decrease due to autonomous vehicles, but no one expects that rate to be dramatically lower than the current rate. For that reason (and probably some others), accidents involving self driving cars simply are not news in China.
Finally, the Chinese are free of the Western (especially U.S.) need to assign blame for accidents involving self driving cars. U.S. legislation and discussion of self driving cars almost obsessively focuses on this issue. Who will pay if there is an accident? Will it be the software developer? The auto manufacturer? The vehicle owner? What if the accident is determined to have been caused by a flaw in the software? Or a flaw in the installation? Or a flaw in the smart transportation network? Or the result of hacking by a third party? Or by operator error? Or by circumstances beyond the control of any party? Or even something as relatively routine as failed brakes?
If you examine U.S. based discussions of self driving vehicles, you will see these issues are primary and this is certainly even more true among the lawyers. Self driving projects then focus on issues like the ethics of driving decisions, insurance coverage, liability and damage allocation. Though these are primary issues in the U.S., they hardly exist in China. I have 200+ pages of Chinese government proposed rules and regulations for autonomous vehicles on my desk. I have five full length Chinese language textbooks on self-driving cars, all published in the last two years. The issue of liability and insurance is not discussed at all in these thousands of pages. It is a complete blank.
There are two reasons for this. First, Chinese are generally far less concerned with assigning guilt than Westerners. In China, guilt is not the main focus of an enquiry of what to do when a person is harmed or injured. In China, the focus is on how the social equilibrium can be restored as quickly as possible. The damage is repaired and the parties move on. Guilt and the associated liability for guilt is usually not a fundamental issue. Second, the Chinese insurance system is a no-fault system so there is no reason to assign guilt. Auto accidents do not give rise tot moral issues. The issues arising from auto accidents in China are usually clear: what was the damage and what sort of payment is required to restore the parties to their original situation. Lawyers are virtually never involved, the award is limited to economic compensation and there is no high value award for non-economic matters like pain and suffering.
From the U.S./Western side, the fear of robots, along with unreasonable safety demands and allocation of liability in a guilt based legal system create substantial barriers to developing self driving cars. In the U.S., these barriers are at least as significant as the considerable technical barriers. In China, these non-technical barriers do not exist. It’s not that they are reduced; they don’t exist at all.
China can therefore focus on the technical issues. So though Chinese companies are currently behind the West on the technical side, they can move forward free from so many of the non-technical barriers that will both slow down and increase the costs of autonomous vehicle development in the West. This means China will reign as the primary testing ground for new technical solutions in the self driving car field. So even if China is not the place where the technology is developed, China will be the place where the technology is applied in real world applications. This is already happening in the electric vehicle market and this same trend will continue in the self driving car market.