Chinese tech start-up DeepBlue has underlined the country’s leading role in the development of self-driving bus technology by signing its first international deals to export its vehicles. An agreement worth $566 million has been signed with Thailand to introduce DeepBlue’s ‘Panda Buses’ into Bangkok with a trial agreement for a pilot project in Greece also agreed. DeepBlue already has driverless Panda Buses on the roads in 10 different Chinese cities with 10 more due to be added before the end of the year.
DeepBlue’s driverless buses still have a safety driver present and able to take over the vehicle’s control if necessary. But other than for perhaps a minute or so after Panda Buses leave the station, the driver switches to self-driving mode and lets DeepBlue’s AI-powered autonomous system do its thing.
The USA might be ahead when it comes to the number of test miles driven and development of the technology behind driverless cars but China is in hot pursuit despite the more conservative approach being taken by its regulators. But when it comes to using driverless technology in public transport vehicles such as buses, which stick to a closed loop route that makes the technology challenges slightly less complex, China is arguably now the world leader.
As well as DeepBlue, Yutong, the country’s largest bus manufacturer has also developed self-driving vehicles. King Long, China’s second largest bus maker has also agreed a partnership with Baidu, the Chinese equivalent to Google whose core business is the country’s most popular search engine, to produce autonomous minibuses.
The Panda Buses that DeepBlue already has in operation in China all run in the country’s quickly expanding smattering of “smart city” trial zones. A state-led initiative, these smart city trial zones are urban areas being developed as districts where trials on everything from traffic control to waste management being managed and carried out by AI algorithms and robots are being conducted. The Chinese government has targeted Rmb500 billion (circa. £60 billion) of public and private investment in these smart city trial zones by 2020.
Mr Chen Haibo, DeepBlue’s founder and chief executive, believes that driverless buses are a more realistic target than driverless cars when it comes to becoming a common sight on roads around China and internationally within the next few years. Because they follow a set route, developing safe driverless technology is less of a challenge than in the case of cars that travel extremely varied routes that can contain all sorts of variables. On busy routes they also offer a more obvious shorter-term prospect of profitability, especially when the technology and laws reach the point they can run without a human safety driver.
DeepBlue’s Panda Buses also contain an array of addition tech from smart vending machines to individual advertising screens able to detect if a passenger’s attention has been caught or not and switch ads if not. These additions promise to additionally monetise passengers’ commute.
If DeepBlue and China’s other driverless bus manufacturers can convince governments and municipalities at home and around the world that the technology is safe, driverless buses like the Panda Bus could become our first common experience with automated vehicles.