Inside China’s ongoing battle over virtual navigation

When drivers turn to Google Maps to figure out where to go next, many feel frustration over the ease with which it presents an answer. New research by Tencent, which operates a popular social-media…

Inside China’s ongoing battle over virtual navigation

When drivers turn to Google Maps to figure out where to go next, many feel frustration over the ease with which it presents an answer. New research by Tencent, which operates a popular social-media network in China, underscores the problem. According to Inverse, Chinese drivers spend over six hours per month looking up the location of a given GPS point — and look for a road a whopping 360 times per month.

But local regulators in China seem to have come to the same conclusion, and they’re introducing a program that will give people real-time GPS navigation using voice commands. Tencent also launched an enhanced Xiaodian taxi-hailing app with the assist of heavy-duty all-electric autonomous vehicles known as LIDAR (light detection and ranging). The vehicles do not need a human driver behind the wheel, as no gasoline engine is used. Instead, pedestrians, cars, and bikes get tracked by the sensors and directed accordingly.

Currently, the map services added to the app work with mostly parts of Beijing and Shanghai that have been designated as test-cities by the Chinese government. Compared to the Internet, Chinese drivers tend to be very reliant on the digital model. A large survey from 2013 also found that 48 percent of Chinese smartphone users have checked their mobile devices during a trip, and the time spent on check-ins is increasing.

At the same time, though, it’s important to note that standardized in-cab navigation has not been made yet in China. For the program to work, a real-time map and system of operator feedback is needed to gauge the traffic flow and ensure the car is guided appropriately. Meanwhile, Chinese investors have only recently become interested in buying self-driving vehicles, making China a key test ground for autonomous driving.

In China, we find a unique combination of the human need for interaction and the elevated importance of the computing being used — the technology can only generate useful data, after all. Still, it is increasingly clear that we will not all be sitting at our computers forever. Perhaps some day all roads may become robot-driven.

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