Smart Cities / Self-Driving Cars

A short drive across the Pacific

Self-driving cars need the US and China to just get along already.

Dec 17, 2018

The relationship between the US and China has been chilly lately. After credible accusations that China stole intellectual property, and subsequent tariff squabbles, any cross-­border investments in areas like AI or computing are under scrutiny, and rightly so.

And then there are self-­driving cars.

Automated vehicles embody a contrary trend, where the companies most likely to succeed will be the ones adept at operating in both countries. Why? Because if you want to build a self-driving car, you’ll need to go to California to recruit people with knowledge in AI and lidar tech, but you’ll also want access to China’s faster commercialization, its tough road conditions, and its massive market. To win, you need to be comfortable in both places.

One company that fits this description is—headquartered in Shenzhen but with an office in Cupertino, California, where it built its first car. I visited the company’s Cupertino office recently and found a place where conversations in English, Chinese, and “Chinglish” take place in a kitchen where the offerings included Taiwanese beef jerky and corn tortillas.

I rode a Roadstar car called Hui around Cupertino, where pedestrians mostly walk on the sidewalk and drivers mostly follow traffic rules. This is very different from navigating China’s multi-level, multi-junction interchanges, which Chinese motorists, bus and truck drivers, and pedestrians alike see more as a battlefield than merely a way to get from here to there. Liang Heng, Roadstar’s CTO and cofounder, told me China’s incredibly complicated traffic conditions give the company a more diverse data set to train the algorithms for autonomous driving.

Roadstar’s three cofounders were all born in China and came to the US for PhD programs, then stayed in the Bay Area to work at leading companies in the autonomous-driving field, including Google, Tesla, and Baidu USA. Baidu’s driverless-­car unit in Sunnyvale, California, where the Roadstar cofounders’ paths ultimately overlapped, has strong connections to both the US and China. Roadstar’s strategy of operating at the intersection of California and China is in many ways an imitation of Baidu’s. and WeRide are two other Chinese self-driving-car upstarts that have headquarters in Silicon Valley. Both Pony’s cofounders, James Peng and Tiancheng Lou, and WeRide’s founders, Wang Jing and Tony Han, all previously worked at Baidu.

“California is the R&D center and China is the place where the rubber meets the road,” says Michael Dunne, CEO of ZoZo Go, an advisory firm focused on the electric-autonomous market. “It’s just a beautiful formula for success.”

Jeff Ding is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Governance of AI Program, University of Oxford.