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China's AVs will think and drive differently

A car with stars for headlights, in the red and yellow of the Chinese flag
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

AVs built in China will look, feel and drive differently because they're being developed in an ecosystem of infrastructure, technical standards and regulatory requirements distinct from those of their U.S. and European counterparts.

Why it matters: Infrastructure investments in particular will help China meet its goal of 10% of vehicles reaching Level 4/5 autonomy by 2030. However, China’s walled-garden approach to AVs will also make it harder for foreign firms to enter the market, and in the long run may limit Chinese AV players as they seek to expand beyond the country’s borders.

There are several key differences between Chinese AVs and those being developed elsewhere:

Standards: In 2017, the Chinese government called for more than 100 domestic standards for AVs and other internet-connected vehicles.

  • Rather than GPS, for example, AVs will use China's home-brewed BeiDou GNSS standard — which requires different receiver chips to communicate with Chinese satellites.

Data inputs: Chinese AVs will "see" much more than U.S. vehicles that rely heavily on onboard sensors, thanks to the government's push to expand smart infrastructure that will provide the vehicles data about their environment.

  • China has supported the rollout of a national 5G network and targeted a 90% coverage rate for cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technology by 2020.
  • State-backed projects like Alibaba’s “City Brain” manage traffic using real-time data that EVs and AVs are required to transmit to government data centers.

Empowered planners: China’s city planners have greater authority than their American and European counterparts.

The catch: Car companies aim for a "design once, build everywhere" approach. But foreign firms will be unable to cut and paste their AV solutions into China's vehicle and mobile app markets, and may have to pursue both local R&D and partnerships with Chinese firms.

  • What to watch: AV companies will have to engage with forthcoming standards and development plans from China’s Ministry of Industry of Information Technology, its AV-coordinating commission, and quasi-private industry groups like TIAA and CAAM. U.S. export controls expected later this year could force a further reliance on indigenous technology by isolating U.S. firms from China's market.

Patrick Lozada is a director in the China practice of Albright Stonebridge, a strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm.