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China tech

Chinese 5G self-driving bus offers glimpse of commutes to come

Manufacturer Yutong uses island in Zhengzhou as proving ground

Yutong's Xiaoyu is a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, with no steering wheel and the capability to run without any human intervention under certain conditions.

BEIJING -- Buses circling a 1.53 km route in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou are offering a sneak peek at what the combination of 5G telecommunications and self-driving technology is likely to bring.

Chinese manufacturer Yutong Bus has dispatched four electric self-driving buses in an open-road trial project on "Intelligent Island" in the city's Longzi Lake. The buses, called Xiaoyu, are at Level 4 on the autonomous scale, which means they can drive themselves without any human intervention under certain conditions.

Two staff members are aboard to provide explanations and hit the emergency brake button if necessary.

The Xiaoyu runs at 20 kph and can travel 200 km on a charge with the air conditioning on. It has eight seats -- and no steering wheel. Yutong says the buses are able to change lanes, avoid obstacles, overtake other vehicles, stop at bus stations, apply emergency braking and drive through intersections.

Cooperation with telecom companies China Unicom and China Mobile has brought superfast 5G networking to the island, while the adoption of what is known as "vehicle to everything" communications technology enables remote monitoring and other capabilities, Yutong said. The company has developed a cloud platform for autonomous driving, which involves highly accurate three-dimensional maps and real-time monitoring of the buses and road conditions.

During a test run, the bus suddenly stopped when pedestrians and vehicles moved into its lane 20 to 30 meters ahead -- a reminder of why it is important for passengers to fasten their seat belts. Asked whether the programmed distance to the next car up ahead was too far, Peng Nengling, vice president of the Yutong Group Intelligent Network Research Institute, said, "Safety is given higher priority than efficiency."

Peng explained that, for all their capabilities, autonomous vehicles still lack that human instinct. "Humans can predict moves by the vehicles around them. We know that an oncoming car will not suddenly swerve toward us before going by. But as Level 4 self-driving technology cannot do that at present, a high level of safety should be maintained."

Yutong said it ran a Level 4 bus at the Boao Forum for Asia on the resort island of Hainan in March, entertaining more than 200 Chinese and foreign guests. The company intends to introduce four self-driving sightseeing buses in the park surrounding the Longzi Lake, where they would follow a circular 9.4 km road.

36Kr, a Chinese tech news portal founded in Beijing in 2010, has more than 150 million readers worldwide. Nikkei announced a partnership with 36Kr on May 22, 2019.

For the Japanese version of this story, click here.

For the Chinese version, click here.

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