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Autonomous-vehicle race underscores need for more fine-tuning
Bloomberg | 2019/5/21

China's road to mastering driverless-vehicle technology is bumpy and full of surprises -- literally. Just ask those attending the country's top autonomous-vehicle race.

In hot and windy conditions last week in the eastern city of Tianjin, dozens of self-driving cars raced for glory. On a circuit covering an area of 10 soccer fields, they navigated through bumps, sudden turns and artificial fog. Even fake cows and sheep suddenly crossed their paths for good measure. Some teams wreaked less havoc than others.

Dodging oncoming traffic and farm animals proved to be easy. Foggy weather and mud? No sweat. What appeared more troublesome was a roadblock that narrowed the track: several cars hit the obstacle straight on, forcing technicians to clear the scene and restart the vehicles, leading to point deductions. One contestant ran over a mock countryside bazaar, failing to steer clear even though average speeds were capped at under 30 kilometers (19 miles) an hour.

While the race, organized by China¡¯s top auto think tank, is meant to spur on China¡¯s autonomous-car efforts, it also highlights how nascent the technology is. Chinese contenders including Baidu Inc. and are navigating through tight local regulations and congested streets in their bid to challenge rivals such as Alphabet Inc.¡¯s Waymo unit, seen as a global leader with years and millions of miles of testing experience.

The third edition of the annual contest was attended by carmakers such as Beijing Electric Vehicle Co. and China FAW Group Co., as well as universities and research entities. The three-day event consists of a countryside off-road contest, an urban block race and a highway challenge. There is also an optional Intelligent Extreme Challenge that assesses participants in areas such as route planning and ethical-dilemma handling.

¡°The invention of automobile changed people¡¯s perception of time and space," Li Deyi, chairman of the Chinese Association of Artificial Intelligence, said at the event¡¯s opening ceremony on Wednesday. ¡°The current revolution will change the nature of cars and make it more than just a transport tool for human beings."

The winner of the contest? The team from Tsinghua University. Beijing Electric came in second.

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