Huawei will develop self-driving technology with Audi for cars that will be sold in China, the two companies announced today. The partnership will focus on creating so-called Level 4 technology, which the Society of Automotive Engineers defines as a car that completely drives itself from start to finish within a specifically designated area.
The deal is the latest in a now very long line of similar partnerships between car companies and tech companies as the two industries move apace toward the goal of truly autonomous vehicles. The two companies didn’t disclose terms of the deal, and the announcement was light on specifics.
Huawei did show off an Audi Q7 outfitted with the technology company’s Mobile Data Center (MDC) rig at its Connect 2018 conference this week. The MDC reportedly consists of a number of AI chips, a central CPU, cameras, LIDAR, and it sits on the roof of the car. Huawei also said it will work with Audi on vehicle-to-vehicle communications and connected car solutions.
For years, China has forced foreign automakers to strike up joint ventures with local companies in order to manufacture cars in the country. But the Chinese government announced earlier this year that it plans to relax those rules, and the automotive landscape is already shifting as a result. Tesla announced this summer that it plans to open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai, and just this week, BMW said it will massively increase its stake in Brilliance Auto Group, which is the German automaker’s partner in China.
When it comes to autonomous vehicles, though, the Chinese government is still guiding the path of Western companies. It strictly controls the permits required to test self-driving vehicles as well as the number of licenses that allow companies to make digital maps of the country’s roads, which is a crucial piece of the autonomous car puzzle. This has led major automakers like Daimler, Ford, and BMW to partner with Baidu, which is one of just a few companies that has the ability to do both.
One of the reasons cited for these tight controls is that China’s government views a more free-market approach to be a national security risk. In other words, it doesn’t want foreign companies to own detailed maps of China’s roads, as well as other data, outright. That caution mirrors similar worries in the West about companies like Huawei. Earlier this year, the US essentially banned government employees and contractors from using Huawei handsets or components.
Audi has reportedly been testing with Huawei in China since September, and it plans to open up an autonomous vehicle development center there in 2019. The automaker developed its own Level 3 system called Traffic Jam Pilot, which allows drivers in Europe to take their hands and eyes off the road while the car handles all driving in most situations. Audi’s parent company, Volkswagen, is developing Level 4 and 5 (complete autonomy with no restrictions) technology with Aurora, a startup founded by the former head of Google’s self-driving car program.