A future of autonomous driving continues to become reality in China, as local authorities and private firms work together to test the potentially life-changing technology with over 100 number plates handed out for public road tests.
In all, the country has now issued 101 license plates for self-driving vehicles owned by 32 companies across 14 cities, with Chinese internet search giant Baidu Inc obtaining the most with more than 50 plates, according to China Automotive Information Net.
Beijing has issued more licenses for the public road testing of self-driving cars than any other city, topping the list with 56, followed by Chongqing (11) and Shanghai (7).
According to the Beijing Innovation Center for Mobility Intelligent, a service provider of road tests for autonomous vehicles, the Beijing government has issued license plates to seven companies, and as of November 2018, self-driving vehicles have traveled 125,600 kilometers on test roads around the city.
For the tests, Beijing has marked out 44 roads, totaling 123 kilometers, for autonomous car testing. One in Yizhuang, a southern suburb in Beijing, is 74.4 kilometers long, making it the longest among all Chinese cities.
Local authorities in Beijing released the country's first guideline on road tests of autonomous vehicles in December 2017, followed by a closed testing ground for autonomous cars in February 2018.
On March 1, authorities in Shanghai then issued the country's first road test licenses to two smart carmakers, SAIC Motor Corp Ltd and electric vehicle startup Nio Auto.
Baidu also obtained its license to test its self-driving cars on open roads in Beijing in March, becoming the first enterprise to conduct road tests in designated zones in the capital.
Today, Shanghai has 37.2 kilometers of roads allowing for the testing of self-driving vehicles, made up of urban main roads, urban secondary trunk roads, and industrial parks.
The city has issued seven license plates to five companies - SAIC, Nio, BMW, TuSimple and Momenta - to conduct self-driving road tests. The last two firms will use their plates to test autonomous trucks.
Zhuang Wenwei, chairman of Shanghai International Automobile City, said more than 90 enterprises, including automakers and companies engaged in intelligent network driving systems, are applying for road tests. More are expected to gain their licenses this year.
According to the Shanghai Municipal Economic and Information Commission, road tests for intelligent network vehicles exceeded 15,000 km by the end of September. Despite the thousands of hours of non-human driving, no traffic accidents or interference with road transportation occurred during the tests, the commission said.
"More tests are needed before such vehicles can reach mass production and enter large-scale commercial application because of widespread safety concerns," said Zeng Zhiling, managing director of LMC Automotive Consulting Co.
Officials have high hopes for the market. China expects vehicles with some autonomous functions to account for half of new vehicles sold in the nation by 2020, according to a guideline released by the National Development and Reform Commission.
In April, the nation released a national guideline on road tests for self-driving vehicles, as part of a broader drive to accelerate the development of the technology and gain the advantage in commercializing such vehicles.
The regulation allows local authorities to evaluate local conditions and arrange road tests for autonomous vehicles. It states that the test vehicles should be passenger or commercial automobiles, not low-speed vehicles or motorcycles.
Besides Beijing and Shanghai, extensive testing is also taking place in a total of 14 other cities around China, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou in Guangdong province, Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, Wuhan in Hubei province, and Chongqing, where seven automakers are testing on 12.5 kilometers of public roads.
However, experts have warned firms to go cautiously, especially when it comes to people's safety.
"Companies should invest and establish more testing sites that imitate different traffic scenarios rather than testing their vehicles on urban roads prematurely," said Lin Jian, a senior engineer in the automobile engineering department at Tsinghua University.
Zhao Xiang, an analyst with internet consultancy Analysys, said self-driving technology is still facing a number of obstacles before being rolled out for commercial use.
She said technological hurdles include the accuracy of digital maps and the high cost of laser sensors used in the self-driving systems.