china steps up autonomous driving development with new guidelines on operating driverless vehicles for public transport

China has drafted new guidelines for the commercial use of fully autonomous vehicles in public transport, helping pave the way for the development and deployment of new fleets of self-driving taxis, buses and trucks nationwide.

The country’s Ministry of Transport, which published the draft guidelines on Monday, said in a statement that the rules would enable the country “to adapt to the development of autonomous driving technologies and encourage the regulated application of self-driving vehicles for transport services, while ensuring safety”. Transport authorities are soliciting public opinion on the draft rules through September 7.

Under the draft guidelines, autonomous buses will be allowed to operate in closed routes, while self-driving taxis would run on roads with light and controlled traffic conditions. Driverless transport of goods will be allowed in certain areas, but these vehicles will be prohibited from carrying hazardous items such as explosives.

Operators of autonomous public transport services will also be required to provide third-party liability insurance of more than 5 million yuan (US$740,000), as well as insurance covering work safety and compulsory automobile liabilities.

china steps up autonomous driving development with new guidelines on operating driverless vehicles for public transport

China’s Ministry of Transport headquarters in Beijing. Photo: Shutterstock

Safety would be the top priority in the management of autonomous vehicles, according to the transport ministry. Its draft rules require a human driver inside vehicles classified as conditional and highly autonomous, while a remote driver or safety operator is needed for fully autonomous vehicles.

In cases of accidents or system failures, the autonomous vehicle must be able to record and save data covering at least 90 seconds before and 30 seconds after an incident, including information about changes in control and remote instructions. Operators of autonomous public transport services must provide such data to local authorities.

The draft guidelines bolster Beijing’s pledge to accelerate the development of high-level autonomous driving, which is a policy that the National Development and Reform Commission and 10 other government agencies jointly announced in 2020.

china steps up autonomous driving development with new guidelines on operating driverless vehicles for public transport

Vehicles are seen bumper to bumper during rush-hour traffic in Beijing. Under draft guidelines published by the Ministry of Transport, fully autonomous public transport vehicles will only operate in closed routes and roads with controlled traffic conditions. Photo: Agence France-Presse

While driverless vehicles are not expected to suddenly become a mainstay on roads across China, the world’s largest car market, the draft guidelines as well as a slew of new regulations from Beijing and local governments are creating a legal infrastructure to help autonomous transport to thrive on the mainland.

On Monday, internet search and artificial intelligence giant Baidu was given the green light to launch unmanned taxi services on the roads of Chongqing in southwest China and Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province. The licences granted to Baidu’s Apollo Go robotaxi service made it the first mainland operator of completely autonomous cabs on open roads.

A week earlier, China’s southern tech hub of Shenzhen rolled out the country’s first dedicated local regulations for autonomous, driverless vehicles. The first-of-its-kind local regulations fill the legal gap to operating intelligent connected vehicles and clarifies liability.

In March, China implemented its first national standards for grading autonomous driving. The country’s Taxonomy of Driving Automation for Vehicles provides official definitions for self-driving cars from Level Zero, which relies on human drivers, to Level 5 covering fully autonomous driving.

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