Global supplier Aptiv is securing a foothold for its self-driving technology in what may be the world's most lucrative autonomous vehicle market.
The company said Wednesday it has opened an Autonomous Mobility Center in China and will soon deploy test vehicles on the roads in and around Shanghai.
That's a precursor to eventual partnerships that could yield an autonomous ride-hailing service that mirrors the one Aptiv runs in Las Vegas along with Lyft.
"Our first step is to get cars on the ground and start driving, and over time, our ambition is to go to market in China using the playbook we've established in Vegas," Karl Iagnemma, president of Aptiv's autonomous mobility division, told Automotive News. "We're developing the full-stack core technology, and we'll integrate it with the vehicle platform from a partner. You put those ingredients together, and it's a great market opportunity."
China has the potential to become the largest global market for autonomous driving technology, according to a report from McKinsey & Co. in January. By 2040, the consulting firm estimates, AVs could account for 66 percent of all passenger miles traveled in China and generate $1.1 trillion in mobility services.
The Chinese government has sought to accelerate the arrival of autonomous, electric and connected vehicles, and its ability to mandate approaches from the highest levels has eased the regulatory path that's more clouded for manufacturers and tech developers in the U.S. and Europe. But China's government has traditionally been protective of its domestic companies.
"You'd think they'd say that 'We have Baidu and Pony and a few others, and we don't need anyone else in here,'" Michael Dunne, CEO and founder of ZoZo Go, a consulting firm that advises automotive companies on China's business market, said in an interview. "It seems to be the case that they're under pressure from the Trump administration, and they're opening up a little bit with the likes of Waymo and Aptiv."
China has issued 101 license plates for autonomous vehicles owned and operated by 32 companies, according to records released by the government in February. Baidu holds at least 45 of those licenses. The company has only disclosed the number of AVs it operates in Beijing, but not the rest of the country. Daimler and Audi are among those with licenses to test in China.
"China has made no secret about its ambition to get in front on autonomy, and the play here would be electric, shared and autonomous," Dunne said. "The environment is conducive to rapid growth."
While the world eyes China, three of North America'a front-runners -- Waymo, Ford and GM's Cruise Automation -- do not yet hold testing permits in the country, though Baidu tests systems integrated into Ford vehicles as part of an AV-related partnership between the companies.
Aptiv is the tech-minded company that was created when Delphi split in half in December 2017. Through those roots, the company has held a manufacturing and engineering presence in China since 1993. That will provide a base for the burgeoning autonomous operations.
The company says its test cars will be on the road in a matter of weeks. But no long-term partnerships have been announced with ride-hailing networks, vehicle manufacturers or companies that make high-definition maps for use in self-driving systems.
Iagnemma said the company is in discussions with potential collaborators.
This is the fifth test location for Aptiv. Shanghai joins Boston, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Singapore on the list of places where the company is testing Level 4 autonomous technology, which requires no interaction or oversight from a human while operating in a geofenced environment.
While maintaining operations in multiple cities can be an expensive proposition, there's potential risk in concentrating efforts on one or two cities, Iagnemma said.
"You face more challenges if you move on from one city," he said. "You have very different driving patterns from city to city, so in a way, we're de-risking by continuing to develop in a variety of cities and environments."