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Sources: China mulling Tesla robotaxi tests

By CHENG YU | China Daily | Updated: 2024-05-09 09:04
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A Tesla Model X vehicle on display during an expo in Yantai, Shandong province last month. TANG KE/FOR CHINA DAILY

China is very likely to support US vehicle maker Tesla's local testing of robotaxis, and may move to consider data compliance issues given that data regulators attended a recent top-level meeting that involved Elon Musk, the automaker's CEO, sources told China Daily on Wednesday.

Experts and domestic self-driving firms believe that Tesla's progress reinforces China's commitment to further open up to more foreign players in the Chinese market for mutual benefit, especially in some emerging sectors like autonomous driving.

During his recent brief but jam-packed visit to China late last month, Musk specifically proposed rolling out its robotaxi products and services in the Chinese market, in addition to deploying full self-driving software in the country, sources close to the matter told China Daily.

Chinese officials told Musk that China "welcomes Tesla to do some robotaxi tests in the country" and hopes the automaker will "set a good example", the sources said, though Chinese authorities have yet to approve Tesla's widespread use of FSD functions. Before the full rollout of its FSD functions, Tesla still needs to get approval to collect and transfer data that Tesla's cars need to train its driver-assistance features.

Though the data problem wasn't discussed in great detail during Musk's visit, a source linked to the visit believes that authorities are "apparently considering" the data issue.

The source said that a top official from the National Development and Reform Commission, which currently oversees the National Data Bureau, was seen attending the top-level meeting with Musk. Officials attending the meeting were "very limited" in number this time, so the NDRC's attendance is considered to be of great significance, he disclosed.

The Ministry of Natural Resources said all intelligent driving systems are required to obtain official qualification before they can operate on public roadways. Foreign companies need to partner with domestic counterparts that have obtained the qualification due to data concerns.

In April, Chinese internet giant Baidu held a news conference announcing a collaboration with Tesla, including the launch of its advanced lane-level navigation specialized for the US firm, which ignited reports saying that the two may in fact have already inked a qualification deal for Tesla's potential rollout of its robotaxi services in China.

A source told China Daily that the latest cooperation means that the accuracy of Baidu's mapping services provided to Tesla has been improved to a great extent, but he did not witness any new deals related to the rollout of FSD functions or qualification between the two — at least during Musk's recent visit.

However, the source said that Baidu is likely to become the qualification partner of Tesla if the latter is able to operate its robotaxis in China, as the two companies initiated their partnership in 2020 in which Tesla integrated Baidu's navigation map into its vehicles in the country.

Both Tesla and Baidu had not yet commented on the issue as of publishing time. Tesla's Nasdaq-listed shares closed 3.76 percent lower on Tuesday local time for a variety of reasons.

Despite rising geopolitical tensions, such as the potential TikTok ban in the United States, Lu Yan, an independent analyst and a veteran in the new energy sector, said: "The tie-up shows that the Chinese government, on the other hand, is devoted to an open market and welcomes foreign players like Tesla, BMW and Mercedes-Benz to implement advanced smart driving technologies in China, and provides a broad marketplace that allows both Chinese and foreign technologies to bloom and make progress together."

Peng Jun, co-founder and CEO of domestic leading self-driving startup, said: "We are very happy to see companies like Tesla joining the autonomous driving sector, which will be a good thing for the development of the entire industry. For an emerging industry like autonomous driving, we are all working toward the same goal of achieving a comprehensive and prosperous development of the industry. Applications from assisted driving to higher-level autonomous driving are expanding rapidly, and the commercialization and application of autonomous driving technologies are expected to usher in explosive growth."

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