China, UAE shift to autonomous cars, leaving the U.S. behind

April 26, 2016

The United States has a mature car culture. For decades, private individuals have bought vehicles, automakers have analyzed trends, and regulators have set guidelines for development of new models.

Sounds good, right? But there's another way of looking at America's long history with cars: we've found our own way of doing things, and we don't always enjoy deviating from it. In newer markets like China and the United Arab Emirates, there's more room for experimentation and early adoption--particularly where autonomous cars are concerned. 


China's flirtation with open-market systems is only a couple of decades old, so private car-ownership remains a relatively new phenomenon for many Chinese citizens. Though consumers clearly have their own sets of expectations when it comes to new cars, they don't have long histories of driving themselves around town, leaving them more open to the idea of autonomous vehicles. (A 2015 study found that 75 percent of Chinese consumers would ride in a fully autonomous car, compared to 52 percent of Americans.) 

At the same time, while China's government has always regulated the auto industry, it's tended to focus more on economics than, say, passenger safety. The sorts of rules that you'd find at America's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration establishing how cars can and can't be built don't exist in China--at least, not at the same level of detail.

So, as we've discussed before, the Chinese government has a shorter history with rules about vehicle construction and functionality, and many Chinese consumers lack the long history of driving that many Americans have. Those help explain why China is shifting toward autonomous vehicles faster than the U.S.

How fast, exactly? A panel backed by China's hugely important Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has just completed a draft of a plan that would have fully autonomous vehicles ready to hit highways within three to five years, The cars would be ready to operate in urban environments by 2025.

"But wait," you may be thinking, "what about Tesla and its Autopilot? Doesn't that count? And aren't other autonomous cars coming to the U.S. by 2020?"

Those are important developments, indeed. In fact, Tesla's highway-oriented Autopilot sounds a lot like what the Chinese are envisioning for the near future. Other automakers aren't far behind.

But what separates the U.S. from China isn't autonomous vehicle technology. On that front, we're likely neck and neck. What separates us is our systems of regulation.

In the U.S. individual states have a great deal of control over regulation of automobiles, from the pollutants they emit to the way in which they're sold. That creates a patchwork of laws that usually have to be changed one at a time, which can be very, very time-consuming. (Just ask Elon Musk.) In China, the process can move much more quickly, because regulations happen at the federal level. 


China wants self-driving vehicles to help curb congestion, pollution, and car accidents. However, China also wants to position itself at the forefront of the autonomous vehicle revolution. (It also wants to be a leader in the push toward electrification, but that's a topic for another day.)

The UAE is in a slightly different situation. There's a very strong car culture in the country, and people love to drive. However, the population tends to be concentrated in major cities like Dubai, which creates massive traffic headaches.

And so, the UAE government is giving particular attention to a system of small, self-driving buses to shuttle people around cities. (They're not too dissimilar from the shuttles you might've seen in documentaries about Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.) Combined with autonomous private vehicles, the government hopes that the buses will help ease congestion.

Our take

There's nothing inherently important about being the first country to approve autonomous vehicles. In fact, some would argue that it might be better to let other countries sanction them first and then learn from their mistakes.

What the race toward autonomous vehicles highlights, though, is the fragmented system of auto regulation in the U.S. As the pace of developing new models increases--due to increased competition, quicker prototyping, and other factors--fragmentation will slow the process, stifling innovation and putting a damper on the auto industry as a whole.

That's why Ford, Volvo, Google, Uber, and Lyft have joined something called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. The group aims to create a national standard for autonomous vehicles that will speed the pace of development and deployment. NHTSA hasn't commented yet on the Coalition's efforts, but clearly, the agency likes the idea of federal guidelines. Only time will tell whether the Coalition's efforts pay off.

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