Tesla maps out new territory in China with Baidu deal

U-turn necessary to comply with Chinese law

Despite Elon Musk's insistence that high-definition maps aren't necessary for self-driving cars, Tesla's vehicles in China will technically rely on them now through a partnership with Baidu.

The electric car manufacturer signed a deal with Baidu, one of China's biggest tech companies, so that Tesla vehicles could get access to HD mapping software, reports Bloomberg. Previously, Tesla relied on AI to react to driving situations in real time, rather than using info from maps, a strategy Musk previously called a "huge mistake" in 2019.

The deal was struck soon after Musk visited China and met with its Premier Li Qiang.

While Musk believes using maps for self-driving cars is a bad idea, the Chinese government disagrees. Regulations on self-driving tech mandate that cars need to meet the so-called map-surveying qualification, which includes software like HD maps. However, this qualification is not granted to just anyone, and only 20 companies, all based in China, have it.

Generally, China is very protective of its geographic data, prohibiting private surveying without a license, and has made its own system that obfuscates coordinates, termed GCJ-02. The country's custom coordinates system is somewhat incompatible with the standard WGS-84 system, and placing WGS-84 points on a GCJ-02 map can result in misses of a few hundred meters.

Tesla had to partner with one of the 20 companies with a map-surveying qualification, and ended up choosing Baidu. This may be due to Baidu Maps' popularity in China and its use of the BD-09 coordinate system, based on GCJ-02, which can convert WGS-84 coordinates into BD-09 but not vice versa.

However, it's not clear whether Tesla will alter its Full Self-Driving feature in China to utilize Baidu Maps, which has been used solely for navigation since 2020. BloombergNEF analyst Andrew Grant suggests that Tesla probably won't be using HD maps, and the deal instead exists to assure the Chinese government that the car company isn't mapping out China.

Since self-driving data will be processed by Baidu hardware, the Chinese authorities will be able to ensure nothing sensitive makes its way out of the country.

On the other hand, China might be a good opportunity to see if HD maps are actually useful for self-driving cars. It wouldn't be the first time Musk made a bad call at a company he oversees. ®

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