Wuhu in eastern China may become the world’s first fully driverless city. The city is working with Baidu—the Chinese Google—to make autonomous vehicles the default for all kinds of journeys over the next five years.
"They want to be the first city in the world to embrace autonomous driving," Baidu’s driverless car boss Wang Jing told the BBC in an interview.
Like Google is doing, Baidu’s initial stages are designed to hone the brains and sensors of the driverless cars, so they’re logging miles without any passengers. This three-year learning and testing phase will start in limited sections of the city, eventually expanding to cover the entire area. Baidu’s plan also involves light goods vans and buses, both of which are essential to a normally functioning city.
In the next stage live passengers will be able to use the cars, and after a total of five years, Baidu and Wuhu hope that the whole city will be open to driverless vehicles. One big advantage to working inside a city is that, like human drivers, the robot cars can learn every inch of the terrain, letting them better deal with the real surprises, like erratic human drivers, and pedestrians.
According to Jing, the main problem with the current transport model is inefficiency. Privately owned cars sit around taking up valuable space when not in use. Commercialized car-sharing programs, on the other hand, make their cars work all the time, meaning less vehicles are needed overall.
Longer-term, says Jing, the hope is that a successful all-autonomous city will provide an example not just to the Chinese government, but to any city. If the experiment works, then other cities may be more likely to try it for themselves.
Other cities are already experimenting with ways to reduce car use. Germany is building a car-free neighborhood designed entirely around pedestrian use, and Oslo will ban cars entirely by 2019. It seems that, finally, we’re collectively starting to realize that the car has no place in the modern city. Driverless cars are a great stepping stone, as are electric vehicles, but ultimately the best result for city-dwellers (currently half of the world’s population) is a city where we can go unmolested by cars, and the ridiculous amount of space that they waste, whether parked or on the move.