BEIJING/PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Chinese developers of self-driving cars have nearly doubled their presence in California road testing, where the pursuit has turned into a two-way race between the world's leading economies.
China claimed eight of the top 25 companies by kilometers driven last year, up from five in 2017, according to data compiled by Nikkei from reports submitted to California. The U.S. held the lead with 13.
Though American names dominated the list, led by Google spinoff Waymo, Chinese developers logged the second-largest total testing distance of any country in California, a hotbed of self-driving innovation. Road tests are crucial for generating the vast amounts of data needed to teach machines to drive.
China has harnessed its private sector together with government funding and research in a national effort to perfect automated driving, drawing on advances in big data and artificial intelligence. Premier Li Keqiang told the National People's Congress, China's parliament, this week that the country will pursue further applications in both fields.
One of the beneficiaries is search engine operator Baidu's Apollo automated-driving program, which has received state funding and recognition as a national project. Baidu automated vehicles drove nearly 30,000 km in California last year, the most by a Chinese company, the Nikkei analysis of public data shows.
It ranked eighth among the top 25 companies by kilometers logged, rising from 11th in 2017. Baidu's consortium includes 135 companies, both Chinese and foreign.
The Chinese internet group has given birth to many self-driving technology startups. Pony.ai was founded by James Peng, a former Google engineer who went on to lead Baidu's automated-driving development. The startup has raised over $200 million, and it ranked ninth with over 26,000 km driven last year.
Automated driving is developing within China, too, as Shanghai, Chongqing, Shenzhen and other metropolises invite domestic automakers and startups to test their technology on public roads. Competition with the U.S. for talent appears likely to intensify as well.
The California test-driving figures show the extent to which U.S.-based developers lead their rivals.
Waymo remains at the head of the pack, with 98 cars driving around 2 million kilometers last year, up 260% from 2017. That is enough distance to circle the Earth's circumference 50 times. Compatriot GM Cruise ran a distant second at roughly 720,000 km.
The need for human interventions also declined. Waymo reported 114 autonomous vehicle disengagements last year -- or one per every 17,730 km, nearly half the Earth's circumference. This frequency fell by half from 2017.
"The pure numbers driven are not an indicator for progress in this field," said Sven Beiker, managing director of Silicon Valley Mobility, a consulting firm specializing in automated driving. "And the same with number of disengagements, as one does not know under what situations they were encountered."
Driverless technology requires AI, which is built on data. Waymo has conducted enough public road tests through 2018 to circumnavigate the globe 400 times. That data has been applied to more difficult situations in recent years as the company seeks to build the world's most experienced driver.
Accidents also have increased as tests shift to more trafficked areas. Waymo reported 18 collisions last year, according to public documents, compared with just one in 2017. But 16 of those incidents are considered human errors by people who either hit or touched Waymo vehicles that were not in motion.
In December, Waymo began a ride-hailing service using self-driving cars in Arizona, and GM Cruise plans to start an automated-driving service this year, as each company enters the commercialization phase.
Apple jumped to third place by California mileage last year from 18th in 2017. The U.S. company has disclosed little information about its self-driving program but is testing 62 vehicles around its headquarters.
U.S. startup Aurora Innovation, which recently revealed an investment from Amazon.com, ranked fourth. Uber Technologies dropped to 12th from third after it halted tests following an accident last March. Nuro, which has attracted nearly $1 billion in funding from SoftBank Group's Vision Fund, slid to sixth place.
Nissan took 14th place, the highest rank among Japanese developers. Toyota Motor, which began tests in February 2018, cracked the top 25 in 23rd place through the Toyota Research Institute, a local R&D unit.
"California is just one of many places that TRI conducts public testing" in autonomous driving, the institute said.
Honda Motor plans to team with General Motors on driverless technology, while the Nissan-Renault alliance is exploring a partnership with Waymo. German automakers Daimler and BMW also have decided to team on self-driving cars.
California's concentration of advanced technology helped make it the world's laboratory for self-driving cars. The state requires every company conducting automated-driving tests on public roads to disclose data on miles driven as well as human intervention for the year through November. A total of 48 companies submitted reports in 2018, and 62 have permission to conduct tests on public roads.