Is Hong Kong being left behind as world prepares for self-driving cars?

Calls go out as US ride-hailing firm Uber reveals it is seeking partnerships with global manufacturers to produce autonomous vehicles using its own software

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 11:24pm

Hong Kong should start considering driverless technology regulation as carmakers around the world are racing ahead in the hot sector, critics have urged.

Specifically, officials should clearly delineate drivers’ liabilities behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle versus those of an automated system’s manufacturer in the event of an accident.

The calls went out as US ride-hailing firm Uber revealed it was seeking partnerships with global carmakers to produce driverless vehicles using its own autonomous software and mapping system.

Many companies including Tesla, Ford, General Motors, and Google have already jumped on the autonomous ride services bandwagon.

Uber banks on successful Singapore game plan to win over combative Hong Kong cabbies as partners

Speaking at Uber’s headquarters in San Francisco, the firm’s chief product officer Jeff Holden explained its ambitions.

“We don’t have any plans to become an autonomous car manufacturer because there are great manufacturers out there,” Holden said. “The only question is whether they want to partner with us to build these vehicles, so we’ll focus on the autonomous software and hardware kits to be incorporated into the vehicle.”

“Absolutely we want to take this all over the world. But right now we want to make it to work here (in the US) first.”

Uber and Volvo are now collaborating, with self-driving software fully integrated into an autonomous car fleet of about 24,000 vehicles. German carmaker Daimler, in contrast, will only leverage the firm’s ride-hail network as it can build its own autonomous cars. Uber also earlier announced a partnership with Toyota to develop a new self-driving shuttle service.

Uber’s advanced technologies group head, Eric Meyhofer, said self-driving cars were safer as they could help reduce accidents with a complex system of lasers to monitor surroundings and detect obstacles.

“Over 1.3 million people died globally in car accidents last year, and 40,000 died in the US alone. This is a huge number,” he said, noting drivers were easily distracted and that mobile phones were a reason.

“This technology must be safer otherwise no one will use it, and we won’t stand behind it. Safety is a fundamental driver for all things at Uber.”

Cities like Hong Kong will be more difficult for all self-driving companies
Justin Kintz, Uber

Equipped with 20 cameras and seven laser sensors for their 360-degree, three-dimensional scan and radar coverage, Uber’s self-driving cars can detect nearby objects and react much faster than people can to avoid collisions.

Pittsburgh and Phoenix are the pilot sites for the firm’s more than 200 autonomous cars. Passengers can request a self-driving ride through its private car service, UberX. As the technology is still at an early stage, a vehicle operator sits in the front seat to monitor the ride.

Yet Uber noted that implementing self-driving technology in Hong Kong would be a challenge.

“Anywhere with a complex environment, many pedestrians, narrow roads or a lot of traffic can be difficult for this technology,” said Justin Kintz, head of policy and communications for the Americas. He added that it was harder for laser sensors to scan hilly roads.

“Cities like Hong Kong will be more difficult for all self-driving companies, but it might also mean it’s more interesting to them. They may want to go test there so they can learn all these things.”

In Pittsburgh, the Post’s reporter took a self-driving ride for about 20 minutes. It was mostly smooth and steady, and sometimes the operator took over the wheel when stuck in traffic or to make way for other vehicles. The operator said he needed to do so to steer clear of jaywalkers.

In Hong Kong, Wesley Wan Wai-hei, a member of the government’s Transport Advisory Committee, called on officials to accelerate their grasp of the latest developments.

“It seems that this self-driving technology is getting really advanced at a rapid pace,” Wan said. “The government should seize the chance quickly to meet these global stakeholders to formulate relevant policies to cater to the future market.”

China formulates new policies for autonomous cars in bid to catch up to US

Hong Kong lacks a specific policy for autonomous driving and would only facilitate its trial on local roads subject to safety and legal considerations on a case-by-case basis. (Last October, the government rejected a request to test the city’s first driverless vehicle, which was developed by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology researchers. The test took place on the mainland instead.)

Wan said officials should initiate a public discussion about how to regulate autonomous driving, especially concerning the liabilities of both drivers and manufacturers.

“When a driver sits behind the wheel of a driverless car and a car accident happens, whether the driver or the car manufacturer should bear liability is something that the law needs to make clear,” he added.

Baidu leads Tesla, Uber and Apple in developing self-driving cars

Lawmaker Charles Mok, representing the technology sector, criticised officials as lacking vision despite their vow to turn the city into an innovation hub. “Even Shenzhen can now facilitate an autonomous driving trial, but Hong Kong is still at square one,” he said.

“There are many things the government should do: identify pilot zones for autonomous driving, study a regulation regime for this technology by reviewing all the outdated traffic laws and laying down the respective responsibilities of concerned parties, and actively engage in stakeholders’ discussions.”

Mok suggested officials identify locations for driverless technology trials, such as in the border zone and Hung Shui Kiu New Development Area in the New Territories.

Cannix Yau was reporting from Pittsburgh