US may curb China’s help in developing driverless cars

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The Pentagon has intervened in the past against Sino-US technology collaboration. Photo: AFP

US President Donald Trump has touted driverless cars as a tech and investment area that can help revitalize America’s aging transport infrastructure. There’s also talk about enlisting the help of Chinese companies such as Baidu in developing such autonomous systems. 

If there is to be Sino-US collaboration, Baidu is a leading candidate. The Beijing-based Web services company has grabbed the lead in developing artificial intelligence (AI) and driverless-vehicle technology in China.

But some experts say there’s a potential roadblock to Baidu’s involvement in stateside driverless-car development – US national-security concerns.

Norman Anderson, a US-based infrastructure strategist with CG/LA Infrastructure Inc in Washington, DC, notes that political opposition to Chinese investment in US technology projects may preclude participation by Baidu and other Chinese firms.

Anderson, whose consulting firm advises global infrastructure projects, warns of the dangers in giving access to what’s likely to be an increasingly sensor-driven US transport infrastructure to Chinese interests. His concern is that dependence on Chinese technology will enable China to exploit vulnerabilities in the US transport system.

Fear of ‘back door’ access

The Pentagon is already antsy about letting companies like Huawei supply chips and networking products to the US military and other agencies because of the “back door” access to sensitive data that might be embedded into such technology.

Most recently, the US military banned its personnel from operating drones made by DJI, a Shenzhen, China-based firm, because of alleged cyber vulnerabilities. The step was reportedly taken after it was found that the audio and video feeds from the drones could be accessed from servers in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Baidu’s perceived ties to China’s government may also be a hot-button issue with US regulators. 

China’s National Development and Reform Commission, a strategic economic and social-planning agency, plans to fund Baidu’s development of a national deep-learning research lab, according to a post on Baidu’s Chinese WeChat account. The Chinese Internet company also cooperates with the government’s Web censorship efforts, though all Chinese firms routinely do this.

Baidu’s April acquisition of US computer vision startup xPerception also raised red flags with critics of Chinese investment in US tech firms. While the deal went through, future stateside acquisitions by Baidu may see tougher US scrutiny. 

Military applications

David Garrity, a Wall Street technology analyst, notes that driverless cars have military applications. The same technology can guide drone tanks and other mobile weaponry. That would make make the US government wary of allowing Chinese firms to access stateside driverless technology. The military would also avoid tapping the technology of US firms that have Chinese shareholders. 

Reports say legislation is pending in Washington to limit Chinese acquisitions or investment in US firms that specialize in artificial intelligence, electric cars and other emerging technologies on security and economic competitiveness grounds.

Against this backdrop, Anderson says, Chinese companies such as Baidu face mounting political hurdles to their participation in US-based driverless-car development. “The national-security sensitivities right now are extraordinary,” he said.

Other Chinese driverless-tech players include Internet service portal Tencent and Alibaba, the flagship company of Chinese tycoon Jack Ma. Volvo parent Geely Automotive is another big investor in the field.

Some doubt if the US can or should curb China’s access to AI such as driverless technology. “How is the US going to stop China? AI is part of a huge international effort,” said Winn Schwartau, a well-known US cyber-warfare expert.

China’s government has announced plans to pour billions into AI-driven technologies with an eye to becoming the world’s leader in AI by 2030.

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