We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.


A short drive across the Pacific

Self-driving cars need the US and China to just get along already.

The relationship between the US and China has been chilly lately. After credible accusations that China stole intellectual property, and subsequent tariff squabbles, any cross-­border investments in areas like AI or computing are under scrutiny, and rightly so.

And then there are self-­driving cars.

This story is part of our January/February 2019 Issue
See the rest of the issue

Automated vehicles embody a contrary trend, where the companies most likely to succeed will be the ones adept at operating in both countries. Why? Because if you want to build a self-driving car, you’ll need to go to California to recruit people with knowledge in AI and lidar tech, but you’ll also want access to China’s faster commercialization, its tough road conditions, and its massive market. To win, you need to be comfortable in both places.

One company that fits this description is Roadstar.ai—headquartered in Shenzhen but with an office in Cupertino, California, where it built its first car. I visited the company’s Cupertino office recently and found a place where conversations in English, Chinese, and “Chinglish” take place in a kitchen where the offerings included Taiwanese beef jerky and corn tortillas.

I rode a Roadstar car called Hui around Cupertino, where pedestrians mostly walk on the sidewalk and drivers mostly follow traffic rules. This is very different from navigating China’s multi-level, multi-junction interchanges, which Chinese motorists, bus and truck drivers, and pedestrians alike see more as a battlefield than merely a way to get from here to there. Liang Heng, Roadstar’s CTO and cofounder, told me China’s incredibly complicated traffic conditions give the company a more diverse data set to train the algorithms for autonomous driving.

Roadstar’s three cofounders were all born in China and came to the US for PhD programs, then stayed in the Bay Area to work at leading companies in the autonomous-driving field, including Google, Tesla, and Baidu USA. Baidu’s driverless-­car unit in Sunnyvale, California, where the Roadstar cofounders’ paths ultimately overlapped, has strong connections to both the US and China. Roadstar’s strategy of operating at the intersection of California and China is in many ways an imitation of Baidu’s.


Pony.ai and WeRide are two other Chinese self-driving-car upstarts that have headquarters in Silicon Valley. Both Pony’s cofounders, James Peng and Tiancheng Lou, and WeRide’s founders, Wang Jing and Tony Han, all previously worked at Baidu.

“California is the R&D center and China is the place where the rubber meets the road,” says Michael Dunne, CEO of ZoZo Go, an advisory firm focused on the electric-autonomous market. “It’s just a beautiful formula for success.”

Jeff Ding is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Governance of AI Program, University of Oxford.

Keep up with the latest in China at EmTech Digital.

The Countdown has begun.
March 25-26, 2019
San Francisco, CA

Register now
More from Connectivity

What it means to be constantly connected with each other and vast sources of information.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Print Subscription.
  • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.