The Fuse

Behind Closed Doors, China Grapples with Autonomous Vehicle Policy

by Skylar Drennen | October 19, 2017

Robin Li, the co-founder and CEO of Baidu Inc., caused a stir this July when he addressed a tech conference audience from the back of a Baidu autonomous car as it drove him around Beijing. The audience was impressed with the stunt, but controversy arose the next day when the Beijing Bureau of Traffic Management announced it was launching an investigation into the incident. China has yet to introduce laws or legal guidelines for autonomous vehicles so it is unlikely Li will face any charges. Two days after Li’s incident, the State Council of China published a roadmap for how China could become the global nexus for artificial intelligence by 2030. Although China has yet to pass autonomous vehicle (AV) legislation, behind the scenes Chinese lawmakers are moving to adopt uniform standards on AV testing to prepare for eventual widespread commercialization.

Evidence obtained from industry insiders and high-level documents suggest China is in the process of developing national AV legislation. Developments in China come as the U.S. has taken the lead in this space. The U.S. House has already passed AV legislation, and the Senate has moved a bill out of committee and is on the verge of passing its own national AV law to create a comprehensive framework for the safe deployment of AVs, while American tech and auto companies are pouring money into testing and investment in self-driving technology.

A number of major Chinese companies, including five automakers, telecommunications giant Huawei, and Baidu, have invested significant resources in the research and development of AVs.

A number of major Chinese companies, including five automakers, telecommunications giant Huawei, and Baidu, have invested significant resources in the research and development of AVs. One major milestone occurred last year when two of Changan Automobile’s AVs completed a 1,200-mile journey from Chongqing to Beijing. A government news release lauding the event is one of the only documents regarding AVs on the official government website. Despite the lack of details, the country is moving forward with AV policy. For instance, Bloomberg reported last year that the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) prepared a preliminary draft of AV testing rules—but those guidelines remain unpublished.

A number of developments suggest the government is nearing a comprehensive AV plan.

  • Last year, the Chinese State Council published a Five-Year Plan (FYP) for national scientific and technological innovation development. One section mentions that the development of self-driving cars is a national priority for all administrative units of Chinese society.
  • In April, MIIT published an official book list for agency party members to read. The second book on the list is Luke Dormehl’s Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence—and Where it’s Taking Us Next. Dormehl’s Thinking Machines addresses a wide range of artificial intelligence based topics, including AVs.
  • In June 2017, an editorial published in the national media stated that standardization of technologies and development of smart cities could facilitate the orderly operation of AVs.
  • Finally, and perhaps most significantly, in July the State Council published a comprehensive plan for the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Along with an exhaustive list of AI and data-enabled technologies, the State Council plan states that China has laid “an excellent foundation” for the development and implementation of AV technology while referencing a three-year plan set to begin in 2018. The document concludes with practical steps for deploying the listed technologies and states that the central government should create a legal and ethical framework to facilitate the safe development of new technologies. It is unclear when the Chinese government will publish specific legislation, particularly given the secrecy surrounding the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) strategy and intentions. Still, all indications suggest legislation that supports the safe development of AI-enabled technologies is an immediate priority as well as a long-term political ambition of the government.

timeline—established by the National Reform and Development Commission (NRDC)—calls for China to set up a framework that fosters the safe and timely development of AI technologies by 2018.

There are a few important details that suggest AV legislation will be implemented soon. First, a timeline—established by the National Reform and Development Commission (NRDC)—calls for China to set up a framework that fosters the safe and timely development of AI technologies by 2018. China’s national government rarely sets targets that it cannot “hit” before the final date in order to foster an image of efficiency.

Second, Baidu has announced plans for a self-driving car to reach the market by 2018, but in limited environments. In China, firms like Baidu closely cooperate with the Chinese government on data and censorship and enjoy close insider relationships with regulators. Baidu’s Li served on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory board to the national government. Baidu’s leaders may know details about the administrative timeline that outsiders do not.

Finally, AV legislation could be announced in the wake of the 19th National People’s Congress (NPC) of the CPC as a facet of the “new era” that President Xi Jinping spoke of in his opening speech this week. If no legislation is proposed this year, then the 2018 plenary sessions of the congress (scheduled in February and October) could be politically advantageous times to launch AV legislation and trial programs.

Testing different AV technologies and rules at the provincial level can help the Chinese government and CCP leadership decide on the parameters of a final national framework.

Historically, Chinese leadership tests unproven ideas regionally before implementing them on a national scale. Testing different AV technologies and rules at the provincial level can help the Chinese government and CCP leadership decide on the parameters of a final national framework. Baidu has said it would offer a market AV in 2018 in certain environments, which could mean the company expects to run different trials in set test areas before being allowed to launch to all of China by 2020.

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