FB Pixel no scriptChinese self-driving car developers slash California test drives | KrASIA

Chinese self-driving car developers slash California test drives

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   4 mins read

Didi pulls out of the program as US scrutiny of China tech mounts.

The distance traveled by major Chinese companies’ self-driving cars in California road tests plunged about 70% last year, official data shows, in another sign of the US-China rift over advanced technology.

The decline in testing in the state’s challenging road environment could have an impact on the Chinese companies’ ability to deploy the technology on a global scale.

Meanwhile, the US is taking a harder look at cars’ data-collecting features. President Joe Biden last week ordered an investigation into technologies used in connected cars, primarily from China, over national security threats.

The California state government’s figures for the year through November 2023 cover autonomous driving on public roads either with or without a safety driver.

Leading the list were the same three American companies as in 2022: Waymo, which is owned by Google parent Alphabet, General Motors unit Cruise, and Amazon’s Zoox.

Meanwhile, Chinese players fell across the board. Five companies—Pony.ai, WeRide, Baidu, AutoX and Didi Global—logged a total of about 200,000 kilometers for the period, down about 70% from 2022.

Pony.ai, a fixture among the top names until 2022, ranked highest in eighth place after an 82% drop. Other companies, such as Nio, have testing permits but no reported road time. AutoX and Didi saw their driving distances fall by 84% and 90%, respectively.

AutoX, founded in 2016 by a Chinese scientist with research experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, has presented itself as a global company advancing Silicon Valley technology in China.

Only 13 of the 44 vehicles it had registered for testing last year logged even a few autonomous driving miles. Of those, just three traveled more than 100 miles, or about 161 kilometers, for the year, down from 14 in 2022.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which issues permits for autonomous-driving tests, told Nikkei Mobility that Didi Research America pulled out of the state’s testing program in February. Didi did not respond to a request for comment on the reason for the withdrawal.

Didi was an early mover in self-driving vehicles, with development hubs in both the US and China. It had been active in California’s program, racking up about 19,000 kilometers of driving distance in 2019 and ranking tenth in 2022 with 60,000 kilometers.

The company has tested robotaxi services in China. It delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in 2022 amid rising US scrutiny on Chinese tech companies, but it gave autonomous driving technology as a fundraising goal in its 2021 initial public offering.

The company does not appear to have stopped conducting research and development in the US, as its website shows that it is still hiring in Silicon Valley.

Chinese developers of self-driving technology had sought to use US testing not only as a way to try out their systems in different road conditions, but also as a way to recruit talent.

But as the two countries clash over advanced technology, worries have grown in the US about the risks that such trials could pose.

Congressman Bob Latta, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from the state of Ohio, pointed to the risk of China amassing data on the American transportation system when he said in July that Beijing “poses an immediate threat to our national security through their use of driverless cars within our very borders.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in November asked ten China-linked companies to answer questions about the data they collect through autonomous vehicle testing in California and elsewhere, Reuters has reported.

Electric and autonomous vehicles collect “a huge amount of information about the driver, the location of the vehicle, the surroundings of the vehicle,” US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in January. “Do we want all that data going to Beijing?”

While the US government does not at this point appear ready to shut Chinese companies out of testing self-driving vehicles here, recent years have seen a string of cases like that of a former Apple engineer charged by the Justice Department with trying to steal autonomous technology for a Chinese company.

Heightened scrutiny of the field could spur the US to broaden curbs on exports of advanced semiconductors to China, possibly including ones made by Nvidia.

There is also the question of market timing, according to Himanshu Khandelwal, partner and automotive industry analyst at AlixPartners’ Detroit office.

From Chinese manufacturers’ standpoint, “do we really want to play an active role in developing an autonomous vehicle, which is still 10–15 years out both in a regulatory and a consumer’s adoption perspective?” Khandelwal said.

We are seeing Chinese OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] selling vehicles EVs [that are] very successful in Europe, while we are seeing the local U.S. OEMs and European OEMs are pulling back in autonomous driving,” Khandelwal added. “Those differences are really driving the disinvestment.”

“They are finding the right balance of their investment with how they are going to be able to recuperate that investment in next five to 10 years.”

TuSimple, a US-based autonomous truck startup with roots in China, delisted from Nasdaq in early February to pivot to China and other Asian markets.

The US presented an opportunity to test self-driving cars in an environment that puts an emphasis on onboard sensors, as opposed to road-based monitors that help vehicles find their way. For now, Chinese firms will likely concentrate on developing self-driving autos tailored to China, where the government is less constrained in building infrastructure optimized for autonomous vehicles.

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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