In January, as part of his State of the Union address, President Obama pledged $4 billion to support autonomous car technology, while Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx promised to fast-track legislation to make sure the U.S. isn’t left behind as other countries rush to develop self-driving vehicles. The German government has also made it a top priority to take the lead in self-driving since the auto industry is of paramount importance to the country’s economy and image.

Two years ago I witnessed firsthand the initial stages of a Volvo research project called Drive Me that will eventually put everyday drivers behind the wheel of 100 autonomous XC90 SUVs on public roads around the automaker’s home city of Gothenburg, Sweden to help study the technology. And it was clear from the officials I spoke with while there that the Swedish government is playing a major role.

Yesterday Volvo announced a similar 100-vehicle self-driving trial, this time in China.  As with the Gothenburg project, “local drivers will test autonomous driving cars on public roads in everyday driving conditions,” Volvo said in a statement.

Volvo added that over the next few months it will “begin negotiations with interested cities in China to see which is able to provide the necessary permissions, regulations and infrastructure to allow the experiment to go ahead.” While discussions will take place with Chinese officials, the larger conversation Volvo and other automakers are driving with governments worldwide is around the need for standardization of autonomous car regulation – whether in Gothenburg or Ganzhou.

The location of Volvo’s second large scale autonomous vehicle trial makes sense because the Swedish brand is owned by the Chinese company Geely, and also since autonomous driving technology has increasing relevance in China. But, as in Sweden, the Chinese government’s backing and regulatory environment plays an important role.

Peter Mertens, Volvo’s senior VP of research and development, told me from Beijing that the reason “for the trial in Gothenburg is it’s our hometown and it’s close to our R&D center, but we also have a lot of support there from government. It is a very unique situation, with us having a fantastic relationship with the city and with the ministry and getting the support that is needed in setting up a project like that.”

Or as Håkan Samuelsson, president and CEO of Volvo, put it during a seminar in Beijing yesterday, “[Autonomous driving] is not just about car technology. We need the right rules and the right laws.”

The seminar was titled “Autonomous driving – Could China Take the Lead?” And it’s a question many have been asking as the battle between nations for self-driving supremacy heats up.

In many ways, China is the ideal setting for self-driving cars. While car ownership has risen dramatically in China in the last decade, so have accidents, traffic jams and air pollution as a result. A recent New York Times article pointed out that this “can make driving a less-than-romantic experience” in China’s largest cities, and “unlike in the United States, China never fully developed a romance with the open road and car ownership.”

“The number of fatalities in China is huge,” observed Mertens. “We know that there are congestion issues. We know that there are environmental issues. All of those things can be improved by autonomously driven vehicles.”

In addition to the Volvo project, China is nurturing its own homegrown self-driving technology. Chinese search giant Baidu is investing heavily into autonomous car tech and has promised to provide automated public transportation via small self-driving buses in China by 2018. It has already secured regulatory and infrastructure assistance from several local governments, and China’s central government is also financing research and development of several other driverless car projects.

While Volvo’s massive self-driving cars trials in Sweden are designed to study the technology in the real world and on public roads, Mertens noted that “in the end, it is also getting regulations to be as global as possible. There is some effort ongoing in Europe to standardize the regulations around autonomously driven cars,” he added. “And there are some activities in the U.S., but unfortunately states are doing different things so there does not seem to be a joint regulatory approach.”

For countries that want to encourage self-driving technology, Mertens suggested there are things governments can do. “There’s obviously infrastructure information that’s needed about traffic lights, about traffic flow, weather information – everything that is needed to have the best information around the vehicle. I think that is something which the governments or the communities should provide the OEMs.”

Mertens added “I would hope there is not competition [among countries] … and there might be cooperation. I would rather see legal frameworks that provide us with the right support. Then I think the countries are doing the best thing. We want to have technology that works in all the regions where we will be selling cars,” Mertens said.

“If there was one solution in Europe, one solution in North America and one solution in China, it would be really, really difficult to make that happen,” he added. “That not only goes for the technology, it also goes for the regulation.”

Originally published by