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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Chinese tech startups are testing self-driving cars on California roads stirring controversy

The vehicles have attracted increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and other U.S. officials.

The race on American streets to develop self-driving cars has attracted increasing scrutiny in recent months, but some competitors — China-based tech startups — have received little mainstream attention.

China-based companies have driven hundreds of thousands of test miles on California’s roads in recent years, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Of the 40 companies with licenses to try out autonomous vehicles in California, 10 of them are firms based in China — a bigger share than any other foreign country (Germany, Israel and Japan follow China, and each has two licensed companies in the state). The China-linked companies operated 124 cars in the state and drove 438,379 miles in the most recently reported year, the 12 months ending Nov. 30, 2022, according to reports that they filed with state authorities.

The Chinese test cars haven’t drawn much public attention because of the smaller scale of their tests compared to their U.S. competitors, including Cruise and Waymo, which operate fleets in major cities such as San Francisco and Phoenix.

But scrutiny of Chinese autonomous vehicles is increasing among lawmakers, as U.S.-China relations have deteriorated in recent years and as self-driving car tech develops. Some members of Congress are pushing for a crackdown on the Chinese car startups, raising concerns about competition, data privacy and China’s human rights record and echoing complaints about other Chinese-controlled companies, such as TikTok. And the Biden administration is expressing similar worries.

The fears about Chinese autonomous vehicles are theoretical and wide-ranging: from concerns about what type of data Chinese tech companies are collecting to how Beijing might use a fleet of robot cars in the worst-case scenario of an armed conflict with the United States.

Brad Templeton, a consultant and a former member of Google’s self-driving car team (now Waymo), said that a fleet of robotaxis could be “a potent weapon,” possibly used to crash into and kill people in the event of an armed conflict.

Three other Chinese companies — WeRide, AutoX and DiDi — logged tens of thousands of miles each in the most recent year for which data is available, through November 2022, according to state records. AutoX operated a grocery delivery pilot program in San Jose. WeRide, AutoX and DiDi did not respond to requests for comment.

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