How China is Handicapping Foreign Autonomous Car Companies

December 15, 2017, 10:53 AM UTC

The Chinese authorities are reportedly blocking foreign automotive firms from mapping Chinese roads at the quality they need to make their autonomous-vehicle technology work well.

The restrictions, which apparently do not apply to Chinese car-makers, were reported Thursday by the Financial Times. The issue concerning the authorities is national security—they fear the cars could be used for spying.

“We have obstacles driving around China making photos and recording GPS coordinates,” a representative of one car firm told the paper.

China has had strong restrictions on the recording of geographic data for over a decade, because it fears that countries might get too much information about where things are, precisely. This means people cannot perform geographical surveys without permission. Many digital cameras won’t record GPS coordinates to geotag the photos they take in China, either.

Self-driving car technology relies very much on precise knowledge of where things are, so the underlying algorithms can steer vehicles with safety. They use GPS and they continuously record and analyse high-definition imagery of the car’s environment.

Foreign car firms looking to sell autonomous vehicles into the Chinese market have to work with a licensed, local firm if they want the high-definition maps they need to make their systems work.

Bernstein analyst Robin Zhu told the FT that China’s restrictions on foreign automotive players was “unsurprising” but still “slightly alarming,” because it appeared to show the authorities politicizing the technology and favoring local firms.