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Hong Kong economy

Hong Kong’s first driverless car forced to test in mainland China

City’s car density and road obstacles are perfect for testing the car, but the government restricts such vehicles from operating on roads

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 4:01pm

Strict regulations have forced the first driverless vehicle built in Hong Kong to take its maiden road test on the mainland despite perfect conditions to do so in the city, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology researchers said on Monday.

The vehicle was developed by Professor Liu Ming and a team of eight students, who equipped a golf cart with an autopilot system that senses its environment.

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The density of cars and obstacles made Hong Kong for ideal real-world test conditions, Liu said, but the government restricts such vehicles from operating on roads.

“Hong Kong’s traffic situation is perfect for autonomous vehicles because roads are marked and separated clearly, and other drivers follow the traffic rules,” he said.

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Liu said he would like to talk to officials to see if the regulations could be eased. But if he is unable to convince them, he planned to take the vehicle to Shenzhen for testing.

A spokeswoman for the Transport Department said that permits for conducting trials of autonomous vehicles on Hong Kong roads were “considered on a case-by-case basis”.

Several trials of self-driving vehicles were being conducted at West Kowloon Cultural District, Science Park in Sha Tin and Zero Carbon Building in Kowloon Bay.

She added that the department had offered advice to HKUST in June last year regarding the project but did not receive a reply.

Liu said his vehicle was equipped with a laser that allowed it to more accurately detect obstructions in the road than self-driving cars developed by other companies.

The on-board artificial intelligence learns from its surrounding environment and any issues it encounters while on the road, so that it can adapt to avoid similar problems in the future, Liu said.

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The university has spent the past decade researching the project, but retrofitting the vehicle for autonomous driving took about a week and was low-cost compared to other self-driving vehicles.

Liu said the cost was about HK$100,000 (US$12,800), where similar self-driving vehicles have cost “millions”. In July, the West Kowloon Cultural District considered buying a driverless car from a French company for HK$2 million.

The converted electric-powered golf cart is able to travel between 30 to 40 kilometres before requiring a recharge.

There were no immediate plans to commercialise the vehicle, but Liu said he was “open” to the possibility.

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Singapore plans to have an entire fleet of driverless taxis by sometime next year and has already tested cars in parts of the city. Professor Michael Wang Yu, the director of HKUST Robotics Institute, said the trend towards Hong Kong becoming more automated and using more robots to do the jobs of humans was “inevitable”, but Hong Kong was slower to adapt than other global cities.

“It’s a matter of how much people [in Hong Kong] feel about the urgency to put their money, and to get government to put it their money, to [automation and robotics],” he said.

“Hong Kong people have great deal of tradition and heritage, in a way that our economy is very vibrant, but in terms of gadgets and trendy things people are not really following the trend. There is still a very traditional home-grown type of mentality.”