Chinese Company Baidu Enters The Race For Self-Driving Car Domination

January 26, 2016 0 Comments

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China’s largest search engine, Baidu, has announced its ambitions to achieve self-driving car domination by utilizing its artificial intelligence and data mapping technologies.

The race to bring autonomous vehicles to our roads is a hot topic with a crowded playing field. Google started developing self-driving cars in 2009 and has tested them for more than 2 million miles, Tesla says that it will have autonomous vehicles ready within two years, while General Motors, Ford and many others are also developing and testing this technology.

However, the senior vice president of Baidu’s autonomous driving efforts, Wang Jing, is not intimidated by the heavyweight companies that are invested in the self-driving car market. He sees a level playing field in the coming era of autonomous vehicles, and believes that China is capable of achieving domination.

“Chinese carmakers started making cars 100 years after others and a lot of the core technologies aren’t in Chinese hands, such as engines,” explained Wang. “With electric cars, with intelligent cars, the core technology shifts from the engine and gearbox to artificial intelligence and that’s an area where China is very close to the U.S., giving China the chance to catch up and seize leadership.”

Baidu’s co-founder and CEO, Robin Li, has invested heavily in a subfield of artificial intelligence known as deep learning, which aims to improve search results and computing tasks by training computers to work more like a human brain. Wang believes that Baidu can leverage its expertise in artificial intelligence, data mapping and Internet connectivity to excel in autonomous driving technology.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sees digital technology as an opportunity for the country’s manufacturers to become more innovative, and he showed his interest when he recently visited Baidu’s stand at a global Internet forum to listen to its CEO discuss autonomous car development.

Although Baidu believes it is poised to become a leader in self-driving cars, an analyst with Minzu Securities in Beijing, Cao He, expects it will take time for Chinese companies to scale up this business.

“There is a long way ahead for Baidu and other companies trying to mass produce and sell autonomous driving cars,” he said. “Given the wide diversity of road conditions from one place to another, it is unlikely for any company to come up with a sizable industry operation within five years.”

There’s no question that there is a lot of money at stake, with Baidu estimating the Chinese market for car sales, buses, taxis and related transportation services is potentially worth more than $1.5 trillion in revenue per year. When it comes to self-driving vehicles in China, Wang believes that Baidu will have a competitive advantage over Google and other automakers that test their artificial intelligence in the U.S. because of its specialized knowledge of local road conditions.

“Many people who have returned after years of living abroad find they’re not used to driving in China, are afraid of driving in China because conditions are much more chaotic,” said Wang. “If you have a robot that’s trained on U.S. roads for instance, they’ll struggle to adapt to the way Chinese cross roads. Our robots are trained on Chinese roads.”

Baidu’s plans are very ambitious, having stated expectations to have their autonomous cars running in 10 Chinese cities within three years. Additionally, the company says it will have a small group of people use its vehicles this year in a closed environment, such as a conference venue.

The company has recently been working with BYD Co., China’s leading electric carmaker, to equip the Baidu AutoBrain system, a software package that incorporates technologies for driving, observing the environment and decision-making to BYD’s vehicles. Wang said Baidu may additionally work with companies based in the U.S., but he declined to disclose any details.

The Baidu AutoBrain system is at the core of the company’s autonomous driving technology, according to Wang. He says Baidu’s self-developed highly automated driving maps record 3D road data, and are accurate to within a few centimeters for vehicle positioning. Wang explains that its object recognition and environment perception technologies allow a car to detect and follow other vehicles with a high degree of accuracy, as well as enabling it to recognize road lanes and effectively gauge distance and speed.

Wang is certainly confident about Baidu’s ability to become a leader in the race to bring self-driving cars to our roads. Will the company truly be able to introduce driverless cars in China in the next three years, and will it become a major global player in the autonomous car market? We’ll be watching them closely as they continue to develop their technologies in the coming period.

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