Self-driving tech is better for factories than cars


BYD’s new luxury brand, Yangwang, is selling its first model, the U8, for more than one million yuan ($160,000).

CNBC | Evelyn Cheng

SHANGHAI – Fully autonomous driving is “fundamentally impossible” and the technology would be better applied to manufacturing, according to a Chinese battery and electric car company BYD.

Many electric car and tech companies are working on self-driving technology. Using some form of technology to help drivers park and perform other tasks is increasingly a feature that Tesla and electric car brands in China are using to entice buyers – with an eye on fully autonomous driving.

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But BYD, by far the largest domestic seller of electric cars in China, took a different view.

“We believe that autonomous technology completely separate from humans is very, very remote and fundamentally impossible,” BYD spokesperson Li Yunfei said in Mandarin, as translated by CNBC.

“When we think of [self-driving tech] from all aspects, human psychological safety needs, ethics, regulation, technology – including application in this industry – we have not understood [the logic] and we think it’s probably a false proposition,” Li told reporters on the sidelines of the Shanghai auto show on Tuesday.

“There may be many industries and companies that invest a lot of money in this [tech]and after investing for many years, it will prove that it is getting nowhere,” he said.

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Startups and established tech companies have been working for years in China to develop fully self-driving technology. Some companies have won approval from local authorities in the suburbs of Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to operate self-driving taxis.

For personal cars, fully autonomous vehicles are not yet allowed on Chinese public roads.

BYD’s Li said about 2 million people are killed in traffic accidents each year, and in a fully standalone scenario it would be difficult to pinpoint who is at fault.

The developers of the assisted driving technology say its features, such as smooth braking when detecting a road obstacle, can help make driving safer.

BYD also offers driver assist technology in select models. Earlier this month, the company announced that it would release new shock-absorbing technology for its high-end cars.

Factory Automation

Despite the increased use of technology in auto factories, Li said final assembly still relies on human workers.

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He said that in China, each factory worker costs about 150,000 yuan a year when considering monthly wages and benefits such as an on-site dormitory that the company has to build.

Over five years, that’s a cost of 600,000 to 700,000 yuan, he said. As long as the company can buy automated technology at the same price, its value is far greater than that of a car, Li said. He pointed out that a machine does not need to eat or sleep.

However, it is not yet clear how much investment and technological research is still needed to create robots capable of performing the complex tasks of welding and final assembly.

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