Waymo has registered a new legal entity in China, with offices in Shanghai, according to Engadget. Google is persona non grata in China these days, as the Chinese government has blocked it from accessing some 8,000 domain names, including Google, Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Docs. It is not the only company to run afoul of the government’s restrictive internet policies. Others include the New York Times, Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon. It seems Chinese citizens have an annoying habit of using Google to search for information on topics the government wants them to remain ignorant about.
Waymo has offered no details about its planned Chinese operations, but it clearly wants to be part of the autonomous car action in China. The cities of Beijing and Guangzhou have recently begun authorizing autonomous vehicle testing on public roads, and Waymo is on the verge of using its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica vans in revenue service in Phoenix, Arizona.
Hopefully Waymo has learned lessons from when Uber tried to move into the Chinese market and got chewed up by the sausage grinder that is Chinese politics. Ultimately, it withdrew from the marketplace, after losing several billion dollars in a bruising brawl with Didi Chuxing.
Qi Lu, the former chief operating officer of Baidu, China’s largest search engine, warns foreign companies they may face regulatory hurdles that domestic operations do not. He warns that the government may view self-driving cars as “weapons.” Their sophisticated guide systems use advanced cameras that could record images the government doesn’t want made available publicly. That means that national regulations could hamper foreign companies like Waymo from using those systems as intended.
Is Waymo attempting to insert Google into China through the back door? More than likely, it is more a move to capitalize on the coming boom in autonomous ride-hailing services, which may be worth trillions of dollars a year worldwide a decade from now. But Google has revealed it has been conducting secret research on a browser that would satisfy the concerns of Chinese authorities, a move that has Google employees up in arms according to Vox. They see the new browser, codenamed DragonFly, as a breach of the corporate ethics Google was founded on.
Earlier this year, Google employees were similarly outraged when they discovered the company was collaborating with the military to develop systems capable of identifying human targets in the video footage taken by drones. Way back in time when Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded the company, their first principle was “Don’t be evil.” Ethics are so easily swept aside by the strictures of capitalism and making a buck. Perhaps the Chinese have reason to be concerned about all of those anonymous Waymo vehicles recording video footage as they drive around the country?