Hong Kong innovators

Hong Kong officials must show innovation drive

As the case of the HKUST driverless car has shown, bright ideas are normally ignored or killed off while rival cities are only too happy to take them further

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 November, 2017, 12:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 November, 2017, 12:13am

For all their complaints about Hong Kong lagging behind in technology, our officials seem to have bent over backwards to make sure that when innovation does come along, they ignore it or kill it. We have squandered our advantage in cashless payment with the Octopus cards introduced two decades ago and are way behind many mainland cities. The government has effectively sent Uber packing thanks largely to the powerful transport and taxi lobbies.

Meanwhile, Singapore and some mainland cities are ready to experiment with driverless cars on the road. Companies from Google to Tencent are investing big in automated vehicles. Engineers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have produced a no-frills driverless car that costs around HK$100,000. The vehicle has a laser that can accurately detect obstructions on the road and is programmed with artificial intelligence to learn to adapt to new environments and different traffic conditions. The retrofit electric-powered golf cart may travel up to 40km before needing a recharge.

But, the HKUST team can’t test it on Hong Kong roads because of strict regulations and may have to take their vehicle across the border to test-drive. The Transport Department says it considers such applications for road tests case by case and has offered advice to the team. It could easily have designated times and places for road tests when traffic was light. Some critics have pointed out that current road regulations and insurance policies would have to be rewritten. But considering that driverless vehicles are safer than those driven by humans, it’s a matter of adapting the regulatory framework to the new technology, not the other way round.

The West Kowloon arts hub has considered buying a driverless car from France for HK$2 million. It could have a much cheaper vehicle from one of our own universities. But why bother supporting local innovators when you can buy more expensive overseas models that may quickly become obsolete in a fast-changing hi-tech field?

It’s time officials put their money where their mouths are, and fully engaged and supported local innovation whenever possible. Otherwise, we will lag further behind while rival cities forge ahead.