China has reportedly instructed military personnel to park their Tesla vehicles outside of their housing compounds and avoid driving them onto military installations out of concern that the vehicles’ onboard cameras can collect sensitive information by relaying video footage to outside computers. Some government agencies have also ordered their employees to avoid bringing their Teslas to work.
Tesla’s computers can receive video footage and driving data from its customers’ vehicles. It says that the information is being used to improve its Full Self-Driving (FSD) software by training the AI behind it. Tesla plans to activate a supercomputer later this year in an effort to improve FSD’s ability to recognize and label objects detected in video footage.
China may be concerned that the FSD AI’s ability to recognize objects in video footage could be used to spy on the sensitive contents of some military installations. Some sources have confirmed that the Chinese government fears that Tesla vehicles’ capacity to send information to a remote location could be used to gather information on a driver’s identity and list of phone contacts.
China is expected to be a major growth market for electric vehicles over the next few years and is already one of Tesla’s biggest markets. Some unconfirmed reports say that Tesla may have acquired some land located near Gigafactory Shanghai for possible expansions of its manufacturing capacity.
However, Tesla’s relationship with China has not been without the occasional hiccup, including an incident in which the Chinese government called it out for shipping cars with an outdated computer chip and another in which Chinese regulators called for a meeting over reported incidents in which Tesla batteries caught fire or vehicles accelerated unexpectedly. Tesla has also had to recall Chinese-owned vehicles that had suspension issues.
Some observers have theorized that China’s decision to restrict Tesla vehicles at sensitive government-owned facilities is the latest move in the ongoing trade feud between the United States and China. Although this is officially a response to an internal review that shows that Tesla cameras are capable of sending footage to Tesla-owned computers, it may unofficially be a response to the United States’ stance that some Chinese brands and Chinese-made products, such as Huawei’s smartphones, may pose security risks.
China’s current concerns over the potential that it would have no control or knowledge of what information can be sent to a remote location may be partially sparked by Tesla’s acknowledgment that Tesla vehicles are packed full of sensors and cameras, which it says are critical to the function of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving software. Information collected by Tesla vehicles could be relayed to foreign intelligence agencies for review.
“Eight surround cameras provide 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of… objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system,” Tesla says in marketing material related to the Autopilot.
When asked for comment, Tesla simply referred to its previous position on data collection, saying that it is consistent with China’s laws and regulations. It also says that the cameras are not turned on for all vehicles. The ministry responsible for China’s counterintelligence efforts has not yet released an official statement on the matter.