The next generation of cars, already on the drawing boards, require considerable time, research and testing before they become commonplace on the roads.
To place itself at the vanguard of "smart cars," Shanghai created a test ground known as the National Intelligent Connected Vehicle Shanghai Pilot Zone — a 100 square-kilometer site in the Jiading District that is the first of its kind in China.
The name is a bit of a mouthful, but it simply means a demonstration site where the latest innovations in smart car technology can be tested under real-life conditions.
It's all part of China's ambitious plan to become a world leader of a new generation of cars that operate on digital intelligence systems, including self-driving. The target to complete the plan is the end of 2025. It's also part of the nation's program to upgrade its prime industries to compete in a changing world.
The pilot zone in Shanghai, opened in June last year, has been a testing site for more than 10 major car makers and auto-parts companies, including SAIC, General Motors, Volvo, Ford, BMW, NIO and Delphi. The testing covers a range of technologies, including self-driving capability, sensor performance, lane adherence and high-definition map positioning.
"Companies are actively participating in the development of the pilot zone," said Rong Wenwei, general manager of Shanghai International Automobile City, which oversees the zone. "What we are building is a platform for companies to accelerate development of the industry."
Ford Motor Co, for one, is testing its driver-assisted technologies, including left turn assist and traffic light optimal speed advisory. The US company has said it hopes both features will figure in its next-generation vehicles.
"The Shanghai International Automobile City provides a setting where we are able to develop, test and refine future connected vehicle technologies," said Trevor Worthington, vice president of product development at Ford Asia Pacific.
Left turn assist is a feature that uses information exchanged between vehicles to alert drivers of oncoming traffic when making a left turn.
Traffic light optimal speed advisory technology connects a vehicle to road infrastructure, informing a driver of the best speed to reduce the waiting time at stoplights by monitoring data from roadway devices. Ford said that the advisory could help drivers avoid red lights, thus reducing travel time by up to 20 percent.
"Imagine your daily commute with less waiting time for red lights," said Thomas Lukaszewicz, manager of automated driving for Europe and China at Ford. "Vehicle-to-infrastructure technology under development holds great promise to make commuting smoother and less time consuming."
Delphi, the global auto parts supplier, has demonstrated its self-driving technologies in the zone. The company applied nine radar units and cameras in the autonomous car.
The radar is used to capture information about the surrounding environment of a vehicle. The camera is used to capture the road conditions in front of the vehicle.
"Chinese consumers are willing to embrace new solutions especially Internet and tech-based autonomous driving, " said David Paja, president of electronics and safety at Delphi.
Delphi said it has achieved rapid progress on advanced driver assistance technology in China in the past five years.
"We are actively in discussion with several original equipment manufacturers in local market," said Frank Wang, president of electronics and safety business for Asia Pacific at Delphi.
In addition to the vehicle testing, the pilot zone is a useful tool in raising public awareness about what's coming next in the driving experience. An area of the zone has been set aside for public education. It offers a 70-minute tour on what it will be like to drive intelligent, connected cars. Visitors can also take rides in self-driving cars, including the Tesla Model X, Volvo XC90 and Volvo S90.
"If I get the chance to visit the pilot zone, I want to take a ride in a self-driving car," said Wang Xing, a student from Tongji University. "I am curious about autonomous driving technology and want to see how it works."
The pilot zone has itself a series of goals for the next three years. By 2020, the zone plans to host more than 1,000 intelligent connected vehicles.
The zone also aims to shoulder at least five national major projects and develop more than 10 industry standards related to intelligent and connected vehicles. It is on track to recruit more than 100 top professionals and serve as an incubator to 30 innovative startups in the three-year period.
As a hub of domestic research and development, it also plans to strengthen work relationships among companies, universities and institutions.
Shanghai International Automobile City said it has signed agreements with more than 20 companies to conduct 100 research projects. It also plans to hold more than 50 professional seminars on intelligent and connected vehicles this year, focusing on testing technologies, standards and big data.