The Chinese government is going all-in on autonomous vehicles

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

There’s been so much news coming out of China’s autonomous-vehicle industry lately that it’s hard to keep track.

The government is finally allowing Tesla to bring its Full Self-Driving (FSD) feature to China. New government permits let companies test driverless cars on the road and allow cities to build smart road infrastructure that will tell these cars where to go. In short, there are a lot of changes taking place. And they all point in the same direction: There’s an immense appetite to make autonomous cars a reality soon. And the Chinese government, on both the central and local levels, has been a major force pushing for it.

So what’s happened lately?

First of all, Tesla got the approval for its FSD feature (rather misleadingly named, since it still has lots of restrictions) after it entered into a deal with the Chinese AI company Baidu to map the country. 

As I reported last summer, in the absence of Tesla FSD, Chinese EV makers were already starting to offer their own driver-assistance programs to help the cars navigate in cities, but they still often look to Tesla for assurance on what technology or strategy to use. The official entry of FSD, which is reportedly set to be rolled out in China sometime later this year, will surely bring another round of competition to the country’s auto market.

Then, the government also handed out the permits that allow companies to test and experiment with driverless cars. On June 4, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued nine permits for testing a more advanced version of autonomous driving technologies on the road. 

The companies that got the permits include prominent EV makers like BYD and NIO, but they also had to collaborate with companies that sell services like ride-hailing, freight trucks, or public buses to test the technology. The idea seems to be to test autonomous vehicles in realistic use cases to see how the technology performs.

And most recently, on July 3, the central government announced a list of 20 cities that will pilot the building of smart, connected roads. The idea is that if a road has various kinds of sensors, cameras, and data transmitters built into it, it can communicate with self-driving vehicles in real time and help them make better decisions. 

A few of the cities on the list have already commenced the work. Wuhan recently budgeted 17 billion RMB ($2.3 billion) for an infrastructure project that will involve building 15,000 smart parking spots, transforming three miles of roads, and building an industrial park for making autonomous-vehicle chips.

To be honest, I start to get numb about yet another new policy or new permit. The list of news could go on longer if I also included actions taken on the municipal level to give companies more approvals to test on the roads or to expand their services. 

To China, autonomous cars represent one potential way to combine new advantages in car-making and AI and take the lead in a cutting-edge field. And while some foreign companies like Tesla are partaking in the campaign, there are lots of Chinese companies responding to the government’s call, and they’re eager to show off their technological prowess.

But I think the takeaway here is clear: The Chinese government is willing to pour its support into the autonomous-vehicle industry and is eager to come out on top while other countries take a more cautious approach. 

The industry has not agreed on the best way to approach fully self-driving cars, and that’s why there are so many different forms of the technology in experiments: autopilot functions, Tesla FSD, robotaxis, smart connected roads. But it’s telling that all of them are receiving so much regulatory and policy support. 

It’s possible that this could all change overnight in the event of an incident like Waymo’s accident in the US last year, but for now, it feels as if China is opening up its roads to make way for more driverless cars, and gearing up to lead the industry.

What are your takes on the endless stream of news from China about self-driving cars? Let me know by writing to

Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. An underground network is paying travelers to smuggle Nvidia chips into China, where its chips are in high demand because of the US export ban. (Wall Street Journal $)

2. The Chinese EV leader BYD will spend $1 billion to build a factory in Turkey. (Financial Times $)

  • This will probably help BYD avoid some of the tariffs that Europe has imposed on made-in-China EVs. (MIT Technology Review

3. OpenAI’s recent decision to cut off access to its services in China won’t affect its business clients much, because they can still access ChatGPT through Microsoft’s cloud service. (The Information $)

4. Can you imagine Microsoft telling its employees to use only iPhones for work? Yep, that just happened in China as part of the effort to improve cybersecurity defenses. (Bloomberg $)

5. A Chinese academic recently revealed that the country currently has over 8.1 million data-center racks and a combined processing power of 230 exaflops—as much as 200 of the most advanced supercomputers today. And China wants to increase the total by 30% next year. (The Register)

6. Chinese factory owners are turning into TikTok comedians to find new business partners overseas. (Rest of World)

7. China is spending twice as much as the US on researching fusion energy. (Wall Street Journal $)

Lost in translation

At the 2024 World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC), held last week in Shanghai, humanoid robots were the star of the show, according to the Chinese publication Huxiu. The event saw a significant increase in exhibitors and panels, driven by a surge of new AI startups. But it was the concept of “embodied AI,” which integrates deep learning with robotics, that received the most attention from the audience.

At the conference, one company presented Galbot, a humanoid robot capable of performing complex tasks like opening drawers and hanging clothes, aiming for applications in elder care and household chores. Another introduced AnyFold, which can fold a blanket. Other robots can perform gymnastics, help users lift heavy objects, or just show very nuanced facial expressions.

One more thing

Who says multimodal AI has no real uses? People have figured out that ChatGPT’s image interpretation function is surprisingly good at one task: finding the most ripe and tasty watermelon out of a bunch of them. Now I’m hopeful about AI again.

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