Chinese self-driving cars “have traveled 1.8m miles on US roads”

On 1 February 2023 Montana residents gawked upwards at a large white object hovering in the sky that looked to be another moon. The airborne object was in fact a Chinese spy balloon loaded with cameras, sensors, and other high-tech surveillance equipment, and it set off a nationwide panic as it drifted across the midwestern and southern United States.

How much information the balloon gathered, if any, remains unknown, says Fortune, but the threat was deemed serious enough that an F-22 US Air Force jet fired a Sidewinder missile at the unmanned balloon on a February afternoon, blasting it to pieces a few miles off the coast of South Carolina.

At the same time that the eyes of Americans were fixed on the Chinese intruder in the sky, around 30 cars owned by Chinese companies and equipped with cameras and geospatial mapping technology were navigating the streets of greater Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose. They collected detailed videos, audio recordings, and location data on their surroundings to chart out California’s roads and develop their autonomous driving algorithms.

Since 2017, self-driving cars owned by Chinese companies have traversed 1.8 million miles of California alone, according to a Fortune analysis of the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles data. As part of their basic functionality, these cars capture video of their surroundings and map the state’s roads to within two centimeters of precision. Companies transfer that information from the cars to data centers, where they use it to train their self-driving systems. 

The cars are part of a state program that allows companies developing self-driving technology -including Google-spinoff Waymo and Amazon-owned Zoox – to test autonomous vehicles on public roads. Among the 35 companies approved to test by the California DMV, seven are wholly or partly China-based. Five of them drove on California roads last year: WeRide, Apollo, AutoX,, and DiDi Research America. Some Chinese companies are approved to test in Arizona and Texas as well. 

Fitted with cameras, microphones, and sophisticated sensors, self-driving cars have long raised flags among privacy advocates. Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the digital rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, called self-driving cars “rolling surveillance devices” that passively collect massive amounts of information on Americans in plain sight.

In the context of national security however, the data-hungry Chinese cars have received surprisingly little scrutiny. Some experts have compared them to Chinese-owned social media site TikTok, which has been subjected to a forced divestiture or ban on US soil due to fears around its data collection practices threatening national security. The years-long condemnation of TikTok at the highest levels of the U.S. government has heightened the sense of distrust between the US and China. 

Some Chinese self-driving car companies appear to store US data in China, according to privacy policies reviewed by Fortune – a situation that experts said effectively leaves the data accessible to the Chinese government. Depending on the type of information collected by the cars, the level of precision, and the frequency at which it’s collected, the data could provide a foreign adversary with a treasure trove of intelligence that could be used for everything from mass surveillance to war planning, according to security experts who spoke with Fortune.

And yet, despite the sensitivity of the data, officials at the state and federal agencies overseeing the self-driving car testing acknowledge that they do not currently monitor, or have any process for checking, exactly what data the Chinese vehicles are collecting and what happens to the data after it is collected. Nor do they have any additional rules or policies in place for oversight of Chinese self-driving cars versus the cars in the program operated by American or European companies.

“It is literally the wild, Wild West here,” said Craig Singleton, director of the China program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative-leaning national security think tank. “There’s no one in charge.” 

(Pic – Konstantin Grigolev/Dreamstime)


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