Notes from a CSIS Virtual Event: AI and AVs: Implications in U.S.-China Competition

By Andrew Braverman
On April 27, CSIS hosted a panel discussion on the implication of developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles (AVs) for U.S.-China competition. The discussion featured Admiral Dennis Blair, Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence; John Bozzella, President & CEO, Alliance for Automotive Innovation; and James A. Lewis, SVP and Director of the CSIS Strategic Technologies Program. Senator Gary Peters, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, provided opening remarks. The panel was moderated by William Alan Reinsch, Senior Adviser and Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS.

Senator Peters opened up the event by highlighting how the future of transportation systems is electric and autonomous. As industry develops smarter vehicles and government creates better regulation around AVs, our roads and infrastructure will become safer. The Senator explained how ensuring continued American innovation in the field is a pivotal part of global economic competition. He called on Congress to take action on legislation that would bolster American competitiveness.

William Reinsch followed up on the Senator’s remarks by questioning the panel on how AVs play into geostrategic competition between the United States and China, both from a civil and military perspective. Admiral Blair answered by contextualizing Chinese aspirations for AVs and EVs in their historical struggle to gain market share for classic internal combustion cars. In this second major stage of vehicle innovation, though, Beijing hopes to be more successful by securing primary materials—like Cobalt and rare earths—and subsidizing domestic companies. They are confident that it will help increase their independence and increase reliance of foreign economies on Chinese industry. American industrial capacity is very important to the American military and recent Chinese advances are of great concern, Admiral Blair explained. John Bozzella built on this idea and emphasized the importance of setting the tone and establishing the standards in AVs and EVs. Though the United States still has a technological advantage, China is gaining ground with their ability to more quickly establish regulatory regimes.

Jim Lewis then posed a question about how much China’s development of transportation technologies will mirror South Korea’s and Japan’s. Bozzella responded, arguing that the United States must avoid dependence on other economies for these technologies. We have seen with microelectronics the importance of having a reliable supply chain, not just for automakers but for consumers and workers around the country.

Admiral Blair explained that each country has a fundamentally different approach to technological development; while the United States sees more competition and a slower consolidation around different kinds of software and hardware, China picks a technology earlier on and depends on its ability to scale in order to capture global market share. Bozzella agreed and added that the Department of Transportation may need to have a greater sense of urgency rolling out AVs. A quicker regulatory process will facilitate more trials and will help build trust around the safety of AVs. Admiral Blair encouraged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to follow the data on AV safety and not give disproportional weight to sensationalized headlines about one AV incident. Lewis cited obscure requirements in transportation law, like the cap on vehicles without steering wheels, as examples of unnecessary roadblocks to innovation in AVs.

As the conversation turned towards how the United States can scale up AV rollout, Bozzella highlighted the value of customer awareness and acceptance, in addition to cultivating more data by eliminating unnecessary requirements like the one Lewis mentioned. Admiral Blair reminded the panel of the potential for increased equity, as transportation becomes cheaper and communities slowly reshape around AVs.

Reinsch then questioned the group about whether advances in AVs will give way to a net gain or net loss in jobs. Bozzella responded that the industry is seeing job growth right now, and the growth is not just concentrated in large coastal cities but across the country. The United States will need to, he added, invest in education to train the employees of the future who are going to be developing AVs. Reinsch pushed back, suggesting that perhaps people getting the new jobs are not the same ones losing the old jobs. On that point, Admiral Blair and Lewis offered a more optimistic perspective. Many of these AV companies are entirely new and the jobs that they provide will be across a range of sectors and require different skillsets.

Shifting towards military applications for AVs, Admiral Blair explained that they have a potential to reduce risk for armed forces, as drones conduct more and more reconnaissance in high-risk situations. Reinsch posed a question about how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed our thinking on these issues. In response, Admiral Blair responded that it simply highlights the importance of ensuring that our armed forces have access to the most advanced technologies.

Pivoting back to China, Reinsch recalled how discussions in the early 2000s revolved around whether China will ever be a true innovator instead of adopting technologies developed elsewhere. Admiral Blair argued that it will largely hinge on how the tech decoupling evolves in the coming years. Turning to a question from the audience, Reinsch asked how the United States can prevent Chinese growth in AVs surpassing American growth, like what has happened in solar energy manufacturing. Bozzella argued that the key will be piecing together R&D with the ability to deploy technologies in the market. Additionally, he added, the ability to fabricate American chips will be integral.

Another audience question queried why traditional U.S. automakers are struggling to compete with Chinese EV companies. According to Bozzella, the Chinese were particularly motivated to develop EVs because of the pollution problem. Government incentives to address that challenge were what kept China so competitive. He was more optimistic about how quickly private sector leadership was growing the EV sector in the United States but insisted that a coherent national strategy could make the United States even more competitive. Lewis argued that significant growth in the EV and AV markets is an inevitability and determining government’s role is simply a question of how much we want to accelerate it.

A different audience member asked about the impact on truck drivers who cannot be or do not want to be retrained. Bozzella stated that the United States currently has a current shortage of truck drivers, so V2V technology can help meet that shortage. Lewis tied this back to the impact on the global economy of China joining the WTO and the significant impact on labor demand of that move. One final audience question asked how much funding the government should be responsible for on AVs and EVs. Admiral Blair explained that on AVs, regulatory clarity is more important than direct funding but with EVs, government subsidies will be important to rolling out charging networks. Bozzella added that the government’s role in securing primary materials will be important for EV development too. Lewis offered up the additions of spectrum allocation by the FCC to the list of government priorities.

The full conversation was recorded and is available here.

Andrew Braverman is a research intern with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The Strategic Technologies Blog is produced by the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).