China’s autonomous vehicle companies are ready to start racing toward market dominance—if regulators don’t put the brakes on

Baidu CEO Robin Li made headlines in July when he live streamed himself in an autonomous vehicle on the outskirts of Beijing. Attendees at a conference observed Li in the passenger seat of a Baidu-enhanced Lincoln Sedan making its way along an expressway. “You can see the driver’s hands are completely off the wheel,” Li told attendees.

There was only one problem: Autonomous driving is illegal on public roads in China, so Li may have been committing a crime. There was, admittedly, someone in the driver’s seat—or so became Li’s defense when traffic police announced that the case was being investigated for potential violations of traffic law, once the video went viral. Baidu had flirted with fire, and in the following days had to go into damage control. (It’s still unclear whether it’s illegal to be driving without hands physically on the wheel).

But the search-engine giant was far from alone in wanting to jump the gun a little. Chinese companies across the automotive and AI sectors are waiting with bated breath for the government to legalize autonomous driving.

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Hands off the Wheel is a story from our issue, “Down to Earth.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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