Transformation of China's economy and society has accelerated rapidly over the past few decades. Perhaps nowhere is that as visible as the change in modes of private transportation, where the bicycle has been dethroned in favor of automobiles.

Gone are the days of photos showing thousands of bicyclists pushing off from stoplights and flooding the streets of Beijing or Shanghai. Today, the highways, byways, and avenues of China's cities swarm with private automobiles.

The change has been rapid and profound. In 2001 China had 18 million vehicles, of which 5 million were cars, according to a study by the U.S. National Research Council and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. By 2004, China Daily-an English-language newspaper recognized as authoritative in matters of state policy-observed that the nation was reaching “the end of its status as the world's 'bicycle kingdom' as an emerging middle class increasingly forgoes the clean and energy efficient transport in favour of the car.”

Data recently released by the Ministry of Public Security indicated that passenger car ownership in the People's Republic of China (PRC) had reached 120 million by the end of 2012. Last year, Xinhua news declared that China's “'two-wheel dream' has been upgraded to a 'four-wheel dream.'”

Forbes recently reported that car sales jumped by 21.6 percent during the first quarter of 2013, following a modest-for China-growth of 7.7 percent in 2012.

And China has room to grow-if perhaps not always room to drive with its low rate of car ownership among its 1.3-billion population.

Putting Wheels under Driving Exams

But where some people see a traffic jam, others see a market opportunity. Where and how will those millions of new car-owners obtain drivers licenses to operate their vehicles. And where and how will they learn how to drive so that they can pass the driving tests?

That's where Chinese system developer Beijing StarNeto Technology, Beijing BDStar Navigation Co., and NovAtel come in.

Based on NovAtel GNSS technology, Star-Neto has designed and fielded an automated driving examination and training system that is seeing rapid uptake by China's national police agency responsible for licensing drivers. The company sees and equal or even greater opportunity in sales to the drivers training centers spring up in cities around the nation.

According to Lu Yu, NovAtel's chief representative in China, 20 million cars are made and sold in China each year. Currently, 200 million drivers have licenses and 20 to 30 million more become eligible for drivers licenses each year.

And recent regulatory changes in China have made the opportunity even more accessible to StarNeto's solution.

Last year, the PRC passed a law-effective January 1, 2013-that required the use of automated systems for evaluating applicants for driver's licenses undertaking driving tests on a surveyed course at the licensing facility. The systems must be able to automatically monitor and evaluate a driver's performance in such tasks as avoiding obstacles, backing into a parking space, starting and parking on a slope, passing obstacles, curved driving, parallel parking, making right-angle turns, and so forth.

These automated tests comprise one portion of a three-part licensing examination. The other two elements are a written test and a driving test on public roads.

Despite sounding tailor-made for a GNSS-aided solution, the new law only required that advanced technology be used to automate driver training and testing; it didn't specify the kind of technology. So, some competing vendors have designed systems that use other positioning methods, such as embedded and roadside sensors.

But GNSS-based approaches seem to be the most popular. Lu says that about 15 system integrators have been certified and authorized by the government to provide automated driver training/testing systems, and around 11 of them use NovAtel technology.

“GNSS is not the only technology used for automated testing systems,” says Jianhui Li, BDStar's president, “but it is the best.” Although it has competition, StarNeto is the pioneer in the field. Its system integrates geographic information system (GIS) mapping, camera, trunked radio, on-board GNSS receivers, and an authorization system for identifying the teacher/ test examiner and student/license applicant.

Development began by using NovAtel's OEMV-2 receiver, moved on to the OEM615, and is evolving to add an enclosure containing the company's ALIGN heading and relative positioning firmware that has the capability available to process China's BeiDou GNSS signals. The ALIGN Heading firmware generates high precision heading and pitch angles between two receivers for real time navigation.

High-precision GNSS commercial survey equipment is also used to survey the training or testing facilities, with coordinates of the sites of the various tests incorporated into the GIS database.

History of an Innovation

Although a fairly recent development, StarNeto's system has a longer history. NovAtel and BDStar have worked together for 14 years, beginning with BDStar's role as a distributor for NovAtel products in China and evolving into a more fullfledged business partnership.

StarNeto began to develop its system in 2010. But the idea goes back more than 10 years ago, when BDStar was contacted by a customer, an academic involved in transportation research, who had idea of creating an automated test/ training system.

At that time, the only GNSS technology capable of meeting the positioning requirements was a real-time kinematic (RTK) system that then cost more than a car, says Li. So, it was impractical for developing as a commercial system.

However, BDStar supports academic researchers to help uncover innovative develop applications and products.

“Universities can only afford one or two [GNSS] systems,” Li says. “You can't get money from professors, but you can get ideas. So, we support them.”

Over time, improvements in GNSS technology and substantial reductions in cost brought the concept into the realm of practical possibility.

“Increases in the volume of ALIGN technology sales allowed us to deliver it in a more costeffective manner,” says Cameron Henderson, a NovAtel product manager who works closely with BDStar and StarNeto.

Recognizing its invention and initial rollout in China, NovAtel worked with BDStar and Star-Neto to provide BeiDou support to the system even before China published an interface control document (ICD) for its GNSS system.

Chinese developers had access to NovAtel's application programming interface, Henderson says; so, a NovAtel receiver provided a measurement from BeiDou signals to Chinese system developers who had early access to the technical specifications, enabling them to add the BeiDou signals to the ALIGN® solution.

Similarities between BeiDou and GPS made for rapid integration of BeiDou capability into existing NovAtel systems, Henderson says. Star-Neto uses a Chinese GNSS antenna specifically designed to work with its drivers examination system.

Change Agent

The automated drivers testing system has already made a difference.

Before this system was implemented, 90 percnet of applicants passed this part of the driving exam, says Lu, reflecting the subjective element in having human test evaluators. After the automated system was installed, only about 10 percent passed the test, he says, a figure that is now up to about 50 to 60 percent pass, reflecting the effect of drivers training enterprises adopting the technology.

The automated system reduces labor costs and improves training. In the past, one policeman was needed for each car/driver being tested. Now, one policeman in the test facility's control center can monitor nearly 100 cars and drivers at a time.

Marketing to drivers training schools was a natural next step. “If you are a training company [or a license applicant] you want to be in the same situation as at the test,” says Li.

“Of people who have trained with and then tested with this system, 70 percent pass the exams,” Lu adds.

The market really took off last year, according to Lu, and StarNeto's sales volume for the system is now in the thousands of units. “It was the right time and the right place for the right thing.”

“The government wanted better-trained drivers, and driver training companies want to sell more lessons,” says Li. “NovAtel and BDStar found a new market.”

Geographically adjacent markets are probably the next target for StarNeto's system. “Not every country needs this technology,” says Li, “but certainly other southeast Asian nations could represent a wider market outside China.”