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China races for global leadership in AVs

Illustration of a car with stars instead of headlights
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As part of the Made in China 2025 strategic initiative, China wants supremacy in key future technologies, including electric cars and autonomous vehicles.

The big picture: Waymo and other U.S. firms like Cruise and Zoox are far ahead in developing the technologies. But China could become the autonomous leader by 2025 because regulators there can pave the way for mass adoption of autonomous cars more quickly than their American counterparts.

What's happening: Baidu is leading China's autonomous efforts but when it comes to the tech they are 3-4 years behind their counterpart Google's Waymo. To catch up, Baidu launched an open-source development program called Apollo that executives say they want to be the “Android” of autonomous vehicles.

  • Apollo has already attracted more than 100 partners, including blue chippers like Microsoft, Nvidia, Intel, Mercedes-Benz and NXP.
  • The Chinese government's friendly regulatory approach to AI enables the collection of troves of data that are crucial inputs into algorithms at the heart of autonomous technology. (The approach may also allow for greater surveillance in the country.)

China is building a brand new city near Beijing called Xiongan that will feature high-tech infrastructure that allows autonomous cars to “talk to” their surroundings and to other vehicles. Xiongan could be China’s blueprint for other key cities.

What to watch: Baidu and other Chinese AV start-ups rely heavily on advanced R&D centers in Silicon Valley, where they employ hundreds of software engineers.

  • With new Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States rules, Chinese companies will likely face restrictions on investments into U.S.-based autonomous tech start-ups.
  • And top software talent in Silicon Valley might feel some reluctance to join Chinese companies.

Michael Dunne is the CEO of ZoZo Go, an investment advisory firm focusing on China and mobility, and the author of "American Wheels, Chinese Roads."

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