Research done by the Boston Consulting Group suggests that within 15 years China will be the largest market for autonomous vehicles, said Xavier Mosquet, a managing director at the firm. Automated taxis will most likely lead the trend.
âItâs not that people are more willing to use the cars in Beijing or Shanghai, itâs that the economic value is much higher in China than in the U.S.,â Mr. Mosquet said, adding that air pollution could be as much a catalyst as bad traffic.
Even as American companies like Google and Tesla work on autonomous vehicles, a number of Chinese companies are working on driverless car technology. The Internet company Leshi Internet Information & Technology (better known as Letv) has a driverless car tech unit, and the Chinese carmaker Great Wall Motors has opened a research center in Silicon Valley. The assumed leader in the field in China is the search engine company Baidu, which has been at work on autonomous vehicles since 2013.
Among the torrent of start-ups, however, Mr. Wu and his colleagues are unusual because of their experience.
Mr. Wuâs company, Uisee Technology, has yet to announce its financial backers, but it has significant ambitions. The team plans to have a technology demonstration ready in less than a year at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in 2017.
âHis team is an unusual collection of supertalent,â said Kai-Fu Lee, a venture investor from Taiwan and former head of Google in China. âThey combine a mechanical expert from a university, a top computer vision expert and machine learning from Google as well as Gansha and his team of semiconductor experts. Gansha is an excellent leader that binds these people together.â
The founders of Uisee, which is an acronym for Utilization, Indiscriminate, Safety, Efficiency and Environment, say they believe the company will find a profitable niche between the poles of the driverless car debate that is raging in Silicon Valley.
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, has predicted that completely self-driving cars may be on the road in the United States in two to four years. Chris Urmson, the director of Googleâs self-driving-car program, has said his goal is to bring a self-driving car to market by 2019.
Others are more cautious, and say they believe it may take a decade or longer for self-driving cars to hit the market. And among the biggest automakers like Toyota, the interest is less in cars that drive themselves than in cars that have artificial intelligence capabilities to assist drivers, like emergency braking.
âWe see a few stages toward fully autonomous driving,â said Mr. Wu, adding that safety technologies are coming quickly. He said driver assistance systems will be followed by completely driverless cars in restricted circumstances, such as on private roads, fixed routes at low speed and in controlled environments. Uisee will begin by developing technologies that assist rather than replace drivers.
Baidu has teamed up with BMW and recently said it was testing its technology in the United States. Baidu has said it is preparing to introduce automated public transportation services in China within the next two years.
Unlike Google, which has had difficulty convincing regulators in its home state, California, that self-driving cars are ready for the road, Baidu already has the regulatory and infrastructure support of a number of local Chinese governments, which it will use to introduce small autonomous buses that will run set routes.
The Chinese government is playing a major role in the overall driverless market. Along with empowering Baidu to run public transportation, in other cases central and local governments have been investing in research and development for driverless car projects.
Mr. Wu also embodies a growing entrepreneurial movement in China. The Chinese government reported that 4.8 million new companies were registered from March 2014 to May 2015, a rate of 10,600 new businesses per day, or seven every minute. Even though venture investment has begun to dry up in China recently, the nation has clearly been infected with a Silicon Valley attitude.
Although in some quarters it is still known as the land of copycat technology, China has long since moved on to copying the start-up ethos of the Valley, with more and more entrepreneurs creating their own companies.
The Chinese government is encouraging the boom as a way to solve a number of economic problems, including unemployment and the transition of the economy from one centered on manufacturing to one based on services.
âThis year more than seven million people are entering the job market in China,â said Haiyang Li, a professor at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston. âWhat are they going to do with these students? The government does not have any better way to solve the employment issue.â
Even as analysts and investors worry the government is over-investing in start-ups, the state support, along with Chinaâs engineering talent and the business need for self-driving cars, could help the nascent business in China.
But there are obstacles. In China, roads often have poorly marked lanes and little signage. People, animals, three-wheel rickshaws and trucks are liable to veer in front of a car at any time. That makes for a more challenging engineering problem in China, said Junyi Zhang, a partner with the consulting firm Roland Berger.
âIt is harder in China, where many roads have pedestrians, bicycles, low-speed vehicles and high-speed vehicles all mixed together,â he said. âIt is a very complicated environment, and many donât ride or drive to the same standard.â