With a whistle, a train decorated to resemble a whale slid into an elevated station located inside the China Flower Expo Park in Yinchuan, capital of Northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region on Wednesday.
As the train halted, Wang Chuanfu, chairman of leading Chinese new-energy car maker BYD, stepped onboard with Guo Ping, rotating and acting CEO of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co.
Unlike the traditional subways usually seen in Chinese cities, this train is a monorail. But there is another difference: The train is fully automated and without a driver.
The debut of BYD's driverless monorail comes only months after the company launched its first "Skyrail" monorail system in Yinchuan, a traffic solution the company believes could be worth 10 trillion yuan (.54 trillion) in 20 years in the Chinese market.
More importantly, the debut from the company, which has Warren Buffett among its investors, came only days after Beijing put the 14.4-kilometer Yanfang Line, China's first fully domestically developed automated subway, into operation. The Yanfang subway cars were made by CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles Co, a subsidiary of the world's largest trainmaker CRRC.
Sun Zhang, a rail expert with Shanghai Tongji University, told the Global Times on Wednesday that these efforts by both State-owned and private Chinese companies underscored China's ambition to keep its lead in the field of mass transportation technologies.
"Smart transportation, including fully automated driverless vehicles, is upon us," Sun said. "While driverless technology is not new, the fast advancement of related technologies in recent years has meant that today's automation technology is more precise and reliable."
Automation is expected to replace drivers and staff servicing the transit system, reducing operating costs by more than half, according to BYD.
On the surface, the range of sectors that BYD is tapping into, from new-energy vehicles and power batteries to mass transit and driverless technologies, appears to be connecting the dots in many sectors in which Chinese companies happen to excel.
However, Wang told the Global Times that his company's expansion trajectory, most recently into the monorail mass transit sector, follows a deliberate pattern.
"This is just a different application scenario for BYD's core technologies including motors, traction systems, batteries and control systems," Wang said. "The monorail is a logical extension of the company's idea of green transportation and it is just like an electric bus in the sky."
The company is talking with some 20 city governments in China to sell its monorail systems, Wang said.
Deals have also been struck in Morocco, the Philippines and Egypt.