Nothing of strategic importance falls outside Beijing’s surveillance machinery. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Chinese government has its eyes on the country’s electric cars. In a recent visit to an electric-car battery factory in China, Quartz was told that all electric carmakers in the country are required to provide data collected from the cars to the government.
This article is a preview of Quartz’s membership premium content for this week, a field guide to China’s electric-car boom.
There’s nothing novel about electric cars that connect to the internet and send data to their manufacturers. It might seem creepy, but automakers all over the world make use of the data collected from their electric cars to improve performance, sometimes directly through over-the-air operating-system upgrades. What’s different in China’s case is that the aggregated data also gets sent to the government.
A website open to the public, run by China’s ministry of finance, gives examples of the kinds of data transmitted first to the carmaker and then directly to the government’s monitoring centers. According to the site, there are currently 1.4 million electric cars providing data, including real-time location, battery performance, and charging times.
A page from the Chinese government’s electric-vehicle-data website. Most of the site is only accessible with a login.
This screenshot, from a July 2018 presentation, shows an example of the individual car data available on the government EV tracking site.
A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that each EV on the road in China provides as many as 61 data points overall. Some 200 automakers, including international names like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Tesla, are part of the program.
The Chinese government responded to the investigation by stating that it uses the data for “analytics to improve public safety, facilitate industrial development and infrastructure planning, and to prevent fraud in subsidy programs.” But no other country where electric cars operate, such as the US, the UK, Norway, Germany, or Japan, collects such real-time data. If governments in these countries were to request carmakers to share the data of an individual car, it would usually have to provide a court order.