They are coming and they may soon dominate the market. But they are more than vehicles and may transmit sensitive data to China outside of any control.
By Massimo Introvigne
February 6, 2024
A Chinese-manufactured BYD Han electric car. Credits.
Germany will host the soccer European Championships 2024. Ironically, a Chinese manufacturer of electrical cars called BYD will replace the German Volkswagen as the event’s official mobility partner. BYD will also be one of the main sponsors of the Championships.
In pure economical terms, Chinese competition for Western manufacturers of electric cars is limited. Chinese companies only have a 5% share of the European Union market of electric vehicles. By comparison, cell phones manufactured in China account for 34% of the EU market. However, this is not the full picture. Sales of Chinese electric cars in the European Union grew by 23% in 2023. On average, a Chinese electric car costs 20% less than a similar car sold by a Western manufacturer. The future looks bright for Chinese electric vehicles.
However, there is a serious security problem, denounced on January 25 in a report by Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Program at the European Council for Foreign Relations, regarded of one of the most authoritative international foreign policy think-tanks.
AI-generated elaboration of an early Chinese poster promoting China-manufactured electric cars.
The report reminds us that electric vehicles are not “just cars” and indeed “are not intended to be. They are supposed to be platforms for mobility that engage in a constant flow of communication, entertainment, and data sharing… Inside the vehicle, driver and passenger behavior is monitored; outside, sensors track and trace the surroundings to teach software to, for example, distinguish between a plastic bag blowing on to the street and a child dashing out between parked vehicles.” These data can easily be transmitted from our nice, low-priced Chinese electric car to China. The Chinese manufacturer is already in contact with the car to update its software from remote.
The European Commission is aware of the issue but so far does little more than recommending caution. The Oertel report asks some pertinent questions: “Should European public servants be allowed to drive Chinese electric vehicles? What about members of parliament, judges, the police, or emergency doctors? Should these cars be allowed to drive anywhere in Europe? Ought they to be curtailed near military installations, NATO bases, or other critical infrastructure?.. How many electric vehicles would theoretically be needed per square kilometer for Chinese agencies to assemble a full intelligence picture in the future? Is data upload to be allowed to happen in real time or only with a time delay?
How can regulations distinguish between features that enable the car to communicate with the producer for the security of the vehicle’s operations and the transmission of other data?”
Interestingly, China is taking care of the problem. When Xi Jinping visited Chengdu in July 2023, a ban was imposed on Tesla electric cars entering certain areas of the city. Electric vehicles manufactured by Western companies in China cannot come near military complexes and the locations of sensitive CCP meetings. Although Tesla has tried to reassure the Chinese authorities, the CCP perfectly understands that each electric car can become an effective spy, unbeknownst to the driver.
The West became aware of the 5G and Huawei problem with some delay. With electric cars, it needs to think in advance.