Lawmakers raise concerns over Chinese-made LiDAR tech

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Members of a House panel focused on China's growing global influence voiced concern over U.S. technology being used in adversaries’ LiDAR systems and the possibility that China-made LiDAR products are embedded in critical U.S. applications.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party are urging Biden administration officials to investigate all Chinese Light Detection and Ranging — or LiDAR — technology companies to determine if their ties to Beijing warrant their inclusion on government-restricted entities lists.

In a Nov. 28 letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, 20 lawmakers on the panel warned that LiDAR “is currently not subject to U.S. export controls or government procurement restrictions.”

LiDAR is a remote-sensing technology that uses pulsed laser light to measure the distance, speed and altitude of surrounding objects. The lawmakers wrote that it is “a critical technology used in autonomous systems and robotics,” including in drones and self-driving vehicles. 

The letter was signed by 15 Republicans and five Democrats, including Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. The lawmakers voiced concern over both U.S. technology being used in adversaries’ LiDAR systems and, conversely, such foreign-backed LiDAR systems being used in critical U.S. applications.

“Given the importance of LiDAR, it is crucial to ensure U.S. technology used in foreign LiDAR systems are not being leveraged by our adversaries to create autonomous military vehicles and weapons,” the letter said. “Urgent action is also needed to stop LiDAR produced by state-backed entities from foreign adversary countries to proliferate in the U.S. market or gain access to U.S. capital markets or U.S. critical infrastructure systems.”

With the U.S. and China locked in fierce competition for global dominance in the tech sector, the letter warned that Beijing “considers LiDAR a strategic technology and has called for its development for use in national security and in military industries.”

“Up until 2018, the global LiDAR market was dominated by U.S. companies, but [People’s Republic of China] LiDAR companies are advancing quickly due to the support of [Chinese Communist Party] industrial policies, including tariffs and subsidies,” the letter added, noting that one Chinese company — Hesai Technology — “has 47% of the global market share by sales revenue.”

The lawmakers called for the Commerce, Treasury and Defense departments “to investigate the PRC LiDAR industry for entities that should be included in your agency’s respective lists and whether specific U.S. technologies should be subject to export controls to the PRC” — particularly the underlying chips used in LiDAR technologies that are not subject to existing restrictions.

The Biden administration has ramped up efforts to stem the flow of U.S. capital and high-tech devices to Chinese-connected companies, including announcing plans in October to tighten previously implemented restrictions on the export of advanced semiconductors to China. The move came after President Joe Biden issued an executive order in August that restricted U.S. investments to China in certain tech-specific sectors. 

Despite these efforts, however, lawmakers and officials remain concerned about the flow of advanced technologies to China and Beijing’s ability to circumvent already implemented export controls. 

In its 2023 annual report released earlier this month, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned, in part, that export controls toward China “now face significant obstacles to enforcement” as a result of “military-civil fusion.”

Tuesday’s bipartisan letter comes after another group of House lawmakers, including Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi, sent letters on Nov. 15 to ten Chinese firms conducting autonomous vehicle testing in the U.S. to express concerns about the type of data they were collecting.