Self-driving cars raise fears over ‘weaponisation’

Tech giant warns global carmakers need to address security concerns

Autonomous vehicles are in danger of being turned into “weapons”, leading governments around the world to block cars operated by foreign companies, the head of Baidu’s self-driving car programme has warned.

Qi Lu, chief operating officer at the Chinese internet group, said security concerns could become a problem for global carmakers and technology companies, including the US and China.

“It has nothing to do with any particular government - it has to do with the very nature of autonomy,” he said on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show last week. “You have an object that is capable of moving by itself. By definition, it is a weapon.”

Increasingly, self-driving technology is seen as advancing faster than regulators can keep up with. Regional and national governments are grappling with the issue of when to allow autonomous cars on to their roads and under what conditions.


Multinational companies will have a "high bar" to meet local policy requirements for autonomous driving, Mr Lu said. "The days of building a vehicle in one place and it runs everywhere are over. Because a vehicle that can move by itself by definition it is a weapon."

Baidu is investing heavily in Apollo, its open-source autonomous car software, as it looks to diversify away from its core business of internet advertising into artificial intelligence. At CES, it unveiled Apollo 2.0, which offers improved security, alongside a new $200m fund to invest in south-east Asian efforts to improve autonomous driving.

It has already agreed partnerships with US chip companies, including Intel and Nvidia, as well as American and European carmakers Ford and Daimler. In China it is working with local auto manufacturers JAC and BAIC, who plan to start producing autonomous vehicles based on Apollo as soon as next year.

Mr Lu, who joined Baidu from Microsoft a year ago, said autonomous vehicles should reduce fatalities on the road, whether caused accidentally or intentionally as an act of terrorism. Pointing to incidents in London and Charlottesville where cars were used intentionally to run down pedestrians, he said: "In the future, these cars won't move if they see a human in front of [THEM]- it doesn't matter who controls the car."

Despite the “overwhelming benefits” of autonomous driving, Mr Lu said it would not happen without a “lot of dialogue” between companies, regulators and politicians. “How we ensure safety, in my view, is going to be a journey,” he said.

Mr Lu's remarks came amid rising tensions between the US and China following news that AT&T had pulled out of plans to distribute Huawei's smartphones on the eve of the deal's announcement at the Las Vegas conference. Security concerns have been blamed for the collapse of talks between the US operator and the Chinese smartphone maker.

Mr Lu said the open nature of Apollo, to which any company can contribute new software coding, would help Baidu navigate regulatory challenges.

“Apollo is created by Baidu but not owned by Baidu,” he said. “We fundamentally believe that an open system that cultivates an environment where the best of breed can participate is better than one single company that does it alone.”

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018