The BMW Group has become the first foreign automaker to obtain a license in China for testing of self-driving cars on public roads.

Known as the Shanghai Intelligent Connected Autonomous Driving Test License, and issued by a number of government departments grouped under the Intelligent Connected Vehicle Road Test Promotion Team umbrella, the license allows BMW engineers to test self-driving cars without government supervision and in locations of their own choosing.

Most of the test locations will be in and around Shanghai, where BMW has established a local self-driving car research hub housing about 60 engineers.

Using the new license, the engineers will initially gather data based on actual traffic, covering its full complexity. This data will be used to train artificial intelligence systems that can then be used to control a self-driving car.

BMW self-driving technology

BMW self-driving technology

BMW aims to develop a Level 4 capable self-driving system. Such a system would enable a car to drive on its own in certain conditions, for example specific types of road or areas with sufficient map data (or both), but still requires a human onboard to take over outside of the set conditions, with ample time given. A key aspect is that a Level 4 self-driving car can also safely bring itself to a stop if its human driver fails to take back control when required.

China, along with the United States and Europe, represents an important region to test self-driving cars. In particular, China’s fast-expanding urban centers present engineers with challenges such as multi-level highways, which aren't found in other regions.

BMW's first car with true self-driving capability will be the iNext due in 2021. However, the iNext will only offer Level 3 self-driving capability in certain highway situations at first, BMW said in April. Like Level 4, Level 3 self-driving cars can handle certain situations on their own. The key difference is that a Level 3 car requires its human driver to be ready to take over within seconds when required.

In related news, Intel and Mobileye, BMW's partners in self-driving cars, announced Thursday plans to test a fleet of around 100 self-driving cars in Israel, where Mobileye is based. Most of the testing will take place in Jerusalem, which Mobileye says is ideal for testing self-driving cars because the city is known for aggressive driving, poorly marked roads and complicated merges, and often has people crossing outside of crosswalks.