China is creating roadblocks for U.S. auto makers and tech companies to bringing self-driving cars to the world's largest auto market. Citing national security concerns, China is limiting the amount of mapping that can be done by foreign companies, as General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc. rush to develop self-driving cars or the software behind them. High-definition maps are crucial for autonomous cars to help them discern their exact location, navigate tricky intersections and avoid fixed objects such as buildings. Global car makers already need to form a partnership with a local company to open factories in China, but some are skeptical they will be able to find a way to operate their autonomous-car software in China because of the mapping restrictions. Brian McClendon, an industry pioneer who helped created Google Maps and later led Uber Technologies Inc.'s self-driving effort, said he doubted U.S. software would ever be adopted for self-driving cars in China.
Swedish carmaker Volvo has said it plans to launch a self-driving experiment in China involving up to 100 cars. Local drivers will test cars on public roads in "everyday conditions", according to a company press release. The move was announced at an event in Beijing on 7 April, though details of a start date were not provided. One analyst said he thought China was at the forefront of the development of autonomous cars. Volvo is owned by a Chinese firm, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co.
These three companies--the so-called BATs--are plowing millions of dollars into electric-vehicle startups, car-sharing services and online retailers, as well as software platforms for autonomous driving and online car selling. U.S. tech companies, notably Alphabet Inc. and its self-driving car unit Waymo, also are pushing into the auto sector. But the BAT companies have a big advantage in China, where tight government internet controls make it difficult for foreign enterprises to compete. For example, non-Chinese companies aren't allowed to operate digital mapping systems needed for autonomous driving. That has prompted both foreign and domestic auto companies like Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, SAIC Motor Corp. and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. to seal tech partnerships with the BAT firms.
Baidu has already developed autonomous vehicle tech, but now plans to produce electric vehicles in partnership with Geely, the Chinese automaker that owns Volvo and Polestar, according to MSNBC. The idea is that Geely will design and manufacture the EVs, while Baidu, China's search equivalent to Google, will supply the technology. "China has become the world's largest market for EVs, and we are seeing EV consumers demanding next generation vehicles to be more intelligent," said Baidu CEO Robin Li in a statement. China's EV market is getting more crowded every day, thanks in part to government subsidies and rapidly expanding charging infrastructure. On top of incumbents like Tesla and domestic companies Nio, Xpeng Motors and others, other tech companies like Foxconn (with Byton) and Alibaba are jumping in.
Baidu has announced that its fully driverless autonomous taxi service will be hitting the streets of Beijing from May 2, making it the first available paid robotaxi service in China. Its Apollo Go service will initially be available at Shougang Park -- one of the venues for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics -- where passengers can travel between sport halls, work areas, coffee shops, hotels, and be available to shuttle athletes and staff during the Olympics. Using the Apollo Go app, passengers can locate a self-driving taxi in the vicinity and hail a driverless ride through a self-service process. Once the car arrives, users are required to scan a QR code and health code on the car for identify verification and COVID-19 contact tracing before the doors of the autonomous unlock. Once a passenger has boarded, they push the "start the journey" button for the ride to begin.