As soon as we drove from the airport onto the highway leading into Beijing, I realized the taxi driver was, shall we say, inexperienced. For one, she only drove at half the speed of the other cars. And each time she changed lane, she hesitated before suddenly shooting in, avoiding crashing into another car by millimeters. Each time, she smiled nervously in the rearview mirror.
But her lack of driving skills became most evident when she took a wrong turn and got stuck in a narrow lane in one of the old hutong areas, not far from the Bell and Drum Towers. We reached a dead end, and when she tried to back out of the lane she drove into a stone wall and scraped the side of the car.
The same thing happened on her second attempt. It was obvious we were stuck against the wall, but still she kept pressing the gas, with a painful screeching sound. Again, she smiled nervously at us in the rearview mirror.
Finally, my wife leaned over to her and asked if I should drive the car instead. I was afraid it would embarrass the driver, but apparently not. “Oh, that would be so kind of you,” she said. So I got in the driving seat, put it in gear and drove the taxi out of the hutongs. I let the meter run.
This little episode is just one example of how traveling by car is neither as simple nor as safe in China as in most other places.
China has more drivers than any other country — and its roads are far from safe. According to a 2015 global study in The Lancet medical journal, road injuries have emerged as the third leading cause of death in China, and are at a higher rate than the world average.
One of the reasons is that unlike in the West, where people learn to drive in their teens, most people in China take to the road at a later age and without much practical experience.
State-controlled media has also reported rising taxi accidents because of cab drivers using taxi-hailing apps while driving. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 700 people on average are killed in road accidents across China every day.
Chris Webster, a professor in architecture and urban planning at the University of Hong Kong, says that self-driving cars have the potential to improve road safety. How? Simply by eliminating the human factor.
He compared the possible advantages of autonomous cars, where sensors are able to detect pedestrians as well as other cars and hard objects, with how robots reduce errors in manufacturing and other areas.
“So for sure, robotic cars will increase road safety,” he told me.
In Singapore, self-driving taxis – operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup – have already begun picking up selected passengers on the streets. The company’s goal is to have a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018.
Uber, meanwhile, is collaborating with Volvo and others in developing robotic taxis. And Google-alike Baidu plans to introduce self-driving cars on Chinese streets.
The taxi incident in the Beijing hutong is far from the only weird passenger experience I have had in China. Many times I’ve been dumped at the wrong hotel – a common trick when the driver can’t be bothered to find the right one. On another occasion, a taxi driver robbed my wife during her first visit to Guangzhou.
But the most unbelievable taxi incident occurred during a bachelor party in Dongguan, a factory town in south China. I only knew one of the other guys invited, and we were the only English speakers.
To warm up we played a dice game at a local karaoke bar, in which the loser had to chug a small glass of beer. Basically, it’s a game of fast drinking. One of the guys was already quite well oiled when we started the game and he kept losing, and drinking, more than anyone else. His speech slowly turned into a slur.
When we later headed out on to the street to go to the next venue, we got into an empty taxi that was parked outside the karaoke bar. When the driver opened the door and climbed into the taxi my jaw dropped –the familiar face belonged to the same guy who had been losing the drinking game all night.
It was his taxi, and he was the driver. As we held on tightly, his voice came from the front, “Hold on,” as he lit a cigarette and drove us into the night.
I couldn’t help thinking that a self-driving taxi would have been a much more comfortable – and safer – option.