China’s government has spent the last few years pressuring automakers and citizens to adopt hybrid and electric vehicles to cut into the country’s pollution levels. But many of these so-called “new energy vehicles” have also been tracking the location of drivers, and a number of government officials and entities have had access to this data, according to a sweeping new report from The Associated Press.
More than 200 manufacturers (both national and foreign) transmit the data to “government-backed monitoring centers,” according to the report, including one called “The Shanghai Electric Vehicle Public Data Collecting, Monitoring and Research Center” and another known as the “National Big Data Alliance of New Energy Vehicles.”
Chinese officials told the AP that this data — which includes the real-time location of cars, plus “dozens of other data points” — is collected to “improve public safety” and “facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning.” The officials say the data is also used to “prevent fraud” in the government’s subsidy program for new energy vehicles, which offers steep discounts on clean cars. The monitoring systems have been in place since the beginning of 2017, according to a report by the International Council on Clean Transportation from last year.
Staffers at the data monitoring centers are able to look at a map, click on a car, and see things like make and model, mileage, and battery charge, according to the AP report.
Daimler (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz) told The Verge that the company shares this data with the government because it is mandated, but that customers are “comprehensively informed” on how it is used. Volkswagen offered a similar explanation but added that customers have to agree to the data-sharing agreement. A representative for NIO, which is an EV startup based in China, said the company complies “with the local rules and regulations of the markets we are doing business in.” Ford declined to comment. Representatives for Nissan, BMW, and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
The new focus on the data sharing mandate raises questions for automakers around the world as they are all clamoring to increase their presence in China. China is the largest market for electric vehicles in the world, and many of these companies have spent the last few years (and in some cases, decades) establishing themselves in the country. They’ve partnered with Chinese car companies in joint ventures mandated by the government. They lobbied to create special economic zones that would allow foreign companies to manufacture cars on Chinese soil, before China announced a rule change this year; Tesla is in line to be the first foreign EV company to open a factory there.
But making a concession around data is a potentially fraught proposition. Even if the data remains anonymized — which isn’t guaranteed, according to the report — it could still become a powerful tool when placed next to the deep array of surveillance strategies employed by China’s president Xi Jinping. The Chinese government had previously been working on a program that would require new cars to be equipped with trackable RFID chips. More broadly, Xi has dramatically increased the data collection capabilities of his government in recent years, established a “social credit” system that ranks citizens on their behavior, and equipped cities (and police) with facial recognition software. It’s also using many of these technologies to identify and detain as many as 1 million Muslims in modern-day gulags.