Shanghai, China - Pedestrian crossings on freeways, separate speed limits for each lane, traffic signs with Chinese characters - traffic in China is radically different. That’s why foreign motorists are required to have a Chinese driving licence.
Even self-driving cars have to pass a driving test, which is why the Mercedes-Benz ‘Intelligent World Drive’, which started at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September with an autonomous car based on an S-Class sedan, is now in Shanghai, battling some of the most complex traffic situations in the world, including two, three and four-wheeled vehicles, and huge numbers of pedestrians.
In China, lane markings can have different or even multiple meanings; what look like pedestrian crossings on freeways are actually minimum following distance indicators. Parking bays come in varying shapes and sizes and often have obstacles that are difficult for sensors to detect.
All of which shows how important global real-world data is, on the road to automated driving; China is the world’s biggest automotive market, making the Mercedes R&D centre in Beijing a crucial component in creating ‘world cars’ - especially self-driving ones.
In the past seven years, 175 Mercedes-Benz test mules have covered 9.5 million kilometres in Europe, the United States, China, Australia and South Africa, making more than 1.2 million test measurements in real-life traffic situations along the way.
And on the ‘Intelligent World Drive’, the self-driving S-Class will tackle different traffic situations on five continents over five months. The first leg, in Germany, focused on freeway travel (Germany is, after all, the only country with no-limit autobahns) and bumper-to-bumper city driving. The second leg, in Shanghai, is all about adaptability to different road rules and signage in other than latin characters.
Then the autonomous S-Class will move to Australia to test its map-reading skills in the world’s widest, most open spaces, and to South Africa to test its ability to cope with jaywalkers (which says more about South Africa’s pedestrians than it does about the car).
The Intelligent World Drive will end with a road trip from Los Angeles to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2018 - and if the autonomous S-Class can successfully cope with all those scenarios, it is probably a better driver than most humans.