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Tesla's Self-Driving Ambition In China Confronts Rivals Rushing Ahead

Tesla's Self-Driving Ambition In China Confronts Rivals Rushing Ahead
If Tesla is successful in introducing its "Full Self-Driving" technology to China, the world's largest automotive market, the US electric-car pioneer will move into the lead in the worldwide race towards self-driving vehicles.
Musk arrived in Beijing on a quick trip that began Sunday to discuss the prospective rollout of its FSD driver-assistance system and the likelihood of obtaining regulatory clearances for international data transfers from Tesla vehicles in China, according to a source familiar with the trip.
Such data, which is used to train self-driving systems, would help Tesla's long-term attempts to build completely autonomous vehicles.
Tesla, as it did with electric vehicles, may be a formidable rival in China's autonomous-vehicle category, industry experts and executives believe, given its early lead in creating driver-assistance systems with certain autonomous functions.
However, Tesla faces stiff competition from BYD, China's largest EV manufacturer, and Huawei, a smartphone manufacturer rising as a national tech champion, both of which have introduced systems geared to handle China's tightly packed urban settings.
Over the last two years, at least ten automakers and suppliers have debuted driver-assistance systems capable of navigating metropolitan streets and making junction turns. Others include EV manufacturers Xpeng and Li Auto, as well as Xiaomi, a smartphone manufacturer that recently launched its first car, which was an instant success.
Any new model priced above $30,000 in China now requires sophisticated driver assistance capabilities to compete, according to Maxwell Zhou, co-founder of, a China-based firm that sells software for advanced driver assistance systems.
On Monday, China's BYD reported its worst quarterly profit increase since 2022.
"You must have a high-level driving solution to prove you have a smart car, not a stupid car," Zhou said.
Xpeng has announced intentions to launch a new mass-market brand, Mona, featuring self-driving technologies on a vehicle costing around $21,000. That is more than $10,000 less than the Model 3's China pricing.
Many industry experts believe it will take years before completely autonomous vehicles become ubiquitous, but projections vary greatly.
Driver-assistance features already available in China are "level two" systems, which means they require a driver who is prepared to take charge. Tesla's FSD and its less-advanced Autopilot are both level-two systems that need vigilant drivers.
More completely automated car fleets are being managed by Baidu, China's largest search engine operator, and, an autonomous driving company, in limited test zones.
According to Yale Zhang, executive director of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight, Tesla's attempt to launch FSD in China will "pressure the other EV startups to accelerate their R&D."
When China's government authorised Tesla's Shanghai facility in 2018, the country witnessed the similar trend in electric car development. At the time, officials hoped for a "catfish effect" - that dumping a giant catfish, Tesla, in the tank would cause the other fish, China EV companies, to swim more quickly.
China's industries responded. BYD, the country's EV leader, has already produced a host of models at various price ranges, starting below $10,000, as China EV sales soared from just over 105,000 in 2018 to more than 1.5 million last year.
Zhang believes Tesla's autonomous car development in China might have a similar impact: "It would be the 'catfish effect' for the second half of the game."
At last week's Beijing car show, Chinese manufacturers and suppliers hailed "level-two-plus" driver-assistance systems with more advanced sensors and displays. While authorities have not authorised them for hands-free driving, some are intended to be with future software upgrades.
While Tesla primarily employs cameras to identify threats around self-driving cars, other manufacturers are developing systems that integrate lidar, which detects things by pulses of light.
Huawei demonstrated components from telematics receivers that operate with both the US-backed GPS system and China's rival BeiDou satellite system, as well as lidar and optical sensors for advanced driving systems.  
The Chinese tech behemoth intends to compete with other major providers of similar systems, like Bosch and Continental. Bosch embraces competition, according to Markus Heyn, a board member who oversees the German automaker's mobility segment.
"It's good for the market," he explained. "We love doing innovative and disruptive stuff."
Tesla might be one of the most formidable challengers, thanks in part to its capacity to collect data from its vehicles - the world's largest fleet of EVs on the road today. However, under Beijing's data security regulations, it is not permitted to move data from its cars in China overseas without prior consent.
Musk has pressed for that data to be available for training its self-driving system outside of China, according to sources familiar with Musk's contacts with Chinese officials.
It is unclear what progress, if any, Musk achieved on data transfers with Chinese authorities he met in Beijing, including Premier Li Qiang.
Musk did depart China with indications that Tesla is getting closer to offering FSD in China, which would provide a new source of revenue at a time when EV sales and price are under severe pressure from Chinese competitors.
The trip resulted in Tesla receiving an endorsement from China's car industry organisation that its best-selling models meet with China's data-privacy standards, as well as the news of an agreement with Baidu that will allow Tesla to gather data using its mapping licence.
In a LinkedIn comment, Xpeng Motors CEO He Xiaopeng stated that Tesla's decision to launch FSD in China might exacerbate what he expected would be a decade-long war for domination of "smart EVs".
China will not be the exclusive battlefield. He emphasised that China's self-driving technology business must begin "making its mark on international markets outside its own turf."

Christopher J. Mitchell

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