China opens door wider to Tesla as local giants disrupt EV sector · TechNode

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(Screenshot: Li Yang)
Tesla claimed on its Chinese app on Monday that it would be rolling out its full self-driving (FSD) system “very soon” rather than the previously stated “a bit later” (our translation). The development comes as the US automaker reportedly received tentative approval from Chinese authorities to deploy its advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) in the world’s most competitive electric vehicle market following a surprise visit to Beijing by chief executive Elon Musk. 

Local customers have expressed mixed views about the potentially game-changing technology finally coming to their country, although many Tesla owners and loyal fans welcomed the long-overdue launch on social media. The technology may not yet work well in Chinese urban driving scenarios, despite costing RMB 64,000 ($8,838); most competitors such as Xiaomi promise to offer similar functions free of charge, Li Yang, a Model 3 owner in Shanghai, told TechNode on Tuesday.

Major Chinese EV players Huawei and Xpeng Motors, who specialize in autonomous driving, have responded in a relaxed way to what is seen by many as a major win for their US rival. 

“We are confident that Huawei’s intelligent driving system is the best in the world,” Richard Yu, Chief Executive of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group, said at a press event last week as the company introduced the redesigned Aito M5 crossover. Aware of Tesla’s release last month of the no-longer-in-beta FSD software, Yu said the company has closely studied its competitor’s technology by taking test rides in San Francisco, among other US cities. 

A long-awaited battle: Experts told TechNode that the US and China have been in a neck-and-neck race to develop “end-to-end neural network” technology, seen by experts as the biggest difference between Tesla’s FSD v12 software and earlier versions.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk stated publicly in November that its most updated, end-to-end FSD uses machine learning rather than rules crafted by programmers to absorb driving behaviors from large datasets. The approach reduces the carmaker’s reliance on coding, expensive sensors, and high-precision maps for exact road information.

“It is more of a 1,000 flowers blooming type of situation here in China, while the US market is guarded by a sole player,” Paul Gong, head of China autos research at UBS, told reporters on Monday in Beijing, referencing a Chinese idiom. Both the US and China are at the forefront of the technological trend, followed by Europe and the rest of Asia, Gong added.

Although Tesla has huge amounts of data, Chinese firms have the potential to quickly catch up by ramping up their test fleets, according to Song Chaozhong, CEO of Chinese self-driving car startup eCHIEV. Song cautioned that real, “human-like” autonomous cars are still far away, despite the technology likely being a positive driver for vehicle sales. 

A booming segment: Analysts expect Tesla’s imminent launch of the FSD software in China to not only help restore Beijing’s image among foreign investors in general, but also help China extend its lead in the adoption of driver-assist technologies worldwide, and enhance its reputation as a rising powerhouse of next generation cars. 

China has become a source of innovative engineering for global automakers, as they are now leveraging the capabilities of Chinese companies to design global vehicle offerings, Gong said when asked his view of this year’s Beijing Auto Show. He added China’s push to open its industries to greater foreign investment and competition has been “underestimated.”

Tech-literate Chinese EV makers are poised for explosive growth thanks to growing interest from Chinese consumers in intelligent driving features, as Elon Musk earlier predicted a “ChatGPT moment” was coming for his company. Huawei on April 24 estimated that more than 500,000 cars on Chinese roads will feature its advanced driving system by year-end. 

Xpeng is scheduled to launch its affordable brand MONA in June with the first model expected to feature an autonomous driving system without the integration of lidar and aiming for annual sales of 100,000 units. Global shipments of vehicles with ADAS features, known as Level 2 plus autonomy, could more than double to 4.5 million units this year, with China leading the game, research firm Canalys wrote in December.

Context: Tesla’s China breakthrough comes after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on April 25 called on China to provide a level playing field for American businesses during his second visit to China in less than a year, Reuters reported. 

The US automaker has reached a deal with Baidu to localize its driver assistance solution with map and geographical information from the Chinese tech giant, according to Bloomberg.

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