Chinese CEO Caught “No-Handed” After Driverless Car Stunt

It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. It’s an old saying that’s been adopted wholeheartedly by American tech executives. Take Google, for example, which has repeatedly fallen foul of regulators over privacy, anti-trust and copyright issues raised by its search engine technology.

Now, Chinese executives, eager to make their mark on the world stage, appear to be following in Google and others’, like Uber’s, brazen footsteps.

Baidu is China’s biggest search engine company and, like Google, it’s branching into other areas, such as driverless car technology.

CEO Robin Li on Wednesday placed a video call to a conference while riding in the passenger seat of a self-driving car. A company colleague was sitting in the driver’s seat, but didn’t have his hands on the wheel.

“The police support technology and innovation of autonomous driving, but it should be conducted legally, safely and scientifically.”

The stunt attracted the attention of authorities because driverless cars are currently banned from Chinese roads, since the industry has yet to convincingly prove the technology is safe.

“The police support technology and innovation of autonomous driving, but it should be conducted legally, safely and scientifically,” Beijing traffic police said in a statement. Violations will lead to punishment, they added, though it’s unclear exactly what that punishment will be in this case.

A Beijing-based lawyer told the news website Sixth Tone that the car would likely be confiscated, though the company may only face a $30 fine for driving without a license.

Apart from reminding other businesses to take care navigating China’s often opaque regulatory regime, the incident provides a clear demonstration of the country’s rapid development in the technology stakes.

Li said Baidu is planning to put self-driving cars on China’s roads as soon as 2019 ahead of mass-market production a few years later.

China has long been regarded as the world’s factory, with young tech companies having to employ foreigners or form cross-border joint ventures to access know-how. Now, those companies are standing up on their own, giving the likes of Google CEO Sundar Pichai a lot more to worry about than the odd government fine.

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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