Autos

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

Companies in both China and the U.S. want to develop driverless cars. 

Slick videos and flashy powerpoint slides envision a future where humans sit back and relax while their transport pods glide across highways, seamlessly merge into traffic and pull up smoothly at the kerb.

What they don't show are the speed bumps, roadblocks and detours that make the journey more like a Mumbai traffic jam. The road to fully autonomous vehicles isn't potted so much with technological barriers as bureaucratic ones.

Thanks to China's state-led push to develop and commercialize self-driving cars, companies like Baidu, Alibaba, Changan Auto and BAIC Motor have been handed the keys to a Ferrari. In the U.S., where Google and GM must grapple with local governments and Congressional foot-dragging, developers have gotten a Zhiguli.

While Google has clocked up 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) with its self-driving cars, an unwillingness by its home state of California to loosen restrictions has kept those trips very local.

Driving Ambition
Cumulative distance covered by Google's autonomous vehicles
Source: https://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar/reports/

Chinese companies face no such problem. Changan Auto this month said one of its self-driving cars completed a 1,200-mile journey, taking six days to reach Beijing from the company's Chongqing headquarters -- the same as a road trip from New York City to Tampa.

Absent the need to cater to local constituents, and with the country's top brass as cheerleaders, China's technology and auto industries have a presidential escort down the development highway.

Naysayers point out that Chinese technology lags far behind that of the U.S., and that's true across the spectrum. From software to semiconductors, networking and sensors -- all critical to making driverless cars fully autonomous -- the U.S. is years, or even decades, ahead of China. 

Yet Chinese companies are tapping into that deep pool of foreign talent. Changan is a partner with Ford while Great Wall Motor, China's biggest maker of SUVs, is planning a research center in Japan.

Baidu, the Beijing-based search-engine provider, has been using its Silicon Valley base to develop deep learning and artificial intelligence technologies for years, and last week announced it'll have more than 100 engineers and researchers in its newly created Autonomous Driving Unit.

Although the U.S. can boast having the biggest engine in the self-driving race, that's not much help when one motorist has their foot on the accelerator and the other still has the handbrake on.

(An earlier version of this story mis-stated the number of miles Google's car has driven on public roads. This has been corrected.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

(Corrects chart and reference to miles logged by Google's car in the fifth paragraph.)

To contact the authors of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net