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Chinese EV giant BYD says self-driving tech is more valuable for factories than cars

BYD’s new luxury brand Yangwang is selling its first model, the U8, for more than 1 million yuan ($160,000).

CNBC | Evelyn Cheng

SHANGHAI — Fully autonomous driving is “basically impossible” and the technology would be better applied to manufacturing, according to Chinese battery and electric car company BYD.

Many electric car and tech companies are working on self-driving technology. Using a form of the tech for assisting drivers with parking and other tasks is increasingly a feature that Tesla and electric car brands in China are using to attract buyers — with an eye on full autonomous driving.

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But BYD, by far the largest domestic seller of electric cars in China, has taken a different view.

“We think self-driving tech that’s fully separated from humans is very, very far away, and basically impossible,” Li Yunfei, a spokesperson for BYD, said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC.

“When we think about [self-driving tech] from all aspects, from human psychological safety needs, from ethics, from regulation, from technology — including application in this industry — we haven’t figured out [the logic] and we think it is probably a false proposition,” Li told reporters on the sidelines of the Shanghai auto show on Tuesday.

“There may be many industries and businesses that invest a lot of money on this [tech], and after investing for many years it will prove it leads nowhere,” he said.

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Startups and established tech companies have worked for years in China to develop fully self-driving technology. Some businesses have gotten approval from local authorities in suburbs of Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to operate self-driving taxis.

For personal cars, fully self-driving vehicles aren’t yet allowed on Chinese public roads.

BYD’s Li said about 2 million people get killed in traffic accidents each year, and in a fully self-driving scenario it would be difficult to pinpoint who is at fault.

Developers of assisted driving technology say its features — such as smooth braking when sensing a road obstacle — can help make driving safer.

BYD also offers assisted driving technology in some models. Earlier this month, the company announced it would release new shock absorption tech for its higher-end cars.

Factory automation

Despite increased use of technology in car factories, Li said the final assembly still relies on human workers.

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He said that in China, each factory worker costs about 150,000 yuan a year when considering monthly wages and benefits such as an on-site dormitory the company has to build.

Over five years, that’s a cost of 600,000 yuan to 700,000 yuan, he said. As long as the company can buy automated tech for the same price, it’s value is far greater than being used in a car, Li said. He pointed out how a machine doesn’t need to eat or sleep.

It’s not yet clear, however, how much investment and tech research is still needed to create robots that can perform the intricate welding and other final assembly tasks.

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