XPeng crash revives autonomous driving concerns

A new draft law for autonomous driving vehicles was issued last week, but cities and provinces have issued their own laws.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By WU Yangyu


An electric vehicle crashed into a parked car and killed a passenger last week in Ningbo. The car was made by XPeng, and it is thought that the accident was caused by a malfunction of the semi-autonomous driving features, again raising questions over the safety of these cars and the need for better regulation.

XPeng confirmed the incident and said it is working with investigators. Local police have not reached any conclusion on the cause of the accident.

In a private chat circulating online, the driver said that lane-centering control, one of the car’s semi-autonomous driving functions, was on when it went off course. It was supposed to give off an alarm, which didn’t happen. He was going at the 80 kilometers per hour speed limit but was distracted and didn’t intervene in time.

Lane-centering control helps drivers stay in their lane and works best on dry roads with clearly-marked center lines. In autonomous driving jargon, it is a “level 2” technology. The car can steer itself and adjust speed but is not good at detecting its surroundings and making decisions accordingly. The driver needs to be ready to take control at any time.

There are various hypotheses on how the XPeng P7 with 13 cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors and 5 millimeter-wave radars, failed to see another car parked in front of it and stop in time. One is that the millimeter-wave radars don’t work as well if the relative speed is higher than 50 kilometers an hour, a problem that can be resolved by using more advanced sensors such as a Lidar. Another is that the cameras were confused because the owner of the other car was standing at its rear. This would have been avoided if sensors were installed on the road that can feed information to the car, which is being tested in some cities.

XPeng listed 52 potential malfunctions of the system in its user brochure and thus is shielded from at least some of the liabilities in this case. But few drivers read the fine print, and probably as few stay alert every single second while on the road.

The Ministry of Transportation has just issued a long-overdue draft law for autonomous driving vehicles. Cities and provinces have been testing robotaxis and driverless delivery vans, issuing their own laws.