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Baidu takes big lead over rivals in autonomous car race

Baidu's autonomous BMW parked at company headquarters in Beijing in January 2016. Photo: Bloomberg

China's technology giant Baidu has stolen a march on its domestic rivals to develop fully self-driving cars, which are expected to generate billions of dollars every year in revenue from mobile Internet services and products.

Speaking at the 2017 Baidu World Conference held in Beijing last week, Baidu Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robin Li summarized the progress the company has made in developing the self-driving system. And most surprisingly, he explicitly announced a specific timetable for the small-scale production of a self-driving minibus.

"Baidu is planning to work with (domestic bus producer) King Long to commence the small-scale production and trial operation of a fully autonomous minibus in July 2018," Li said at the annual technology conference, according to domestic media reports. The timeframe that Li gave at the conference is almost two years earlier than a widely held notion that the mass production of the driverless vehicles is likely to be realized by 2020.

Innovative Baidu is reluctant to wait for the year 2020 and hopes to bring forward the timetable, Li said faithfully at the conference, adding that the company will also launch fully autonomous cars with Chinese carmakers Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group and BAIC Motor in 2019, and Chery Automobile in 2020.

In September, the operator of China's largest search engine established the $1.5 billion Apollo Fund, which will invest in laser radar, artificial intelligence chip and software algorithm, the necessary technologies needed for the research and development of driverless vehicles.

The autonomous driving fund is connected to Baidu's open-source self-driving platform named Apollo, through which third-party partners can access obstacle perception technology, cloud simulation services, high-definition maps and other related technologies that enable cars to run in designated lanes. Since the launch in April, the Apollo platform has completed several updates, and the number of its members has climbed.

According to Li, the Apollo self-driving platform has already attracted more than 6,000 developers and enlisted over 1,700 partners including technology companies, traditional vehicle manufacturers, automobile parts suppliers and research institutions, with more than 100 partners applying for sharing the open data on the Apollo platform.

Compared with other domestic players, which either delve into the autonomous driving system independently or establish partnerships with traditional carmakers to build driverless vehicles, Baidu is the first Chinese technology giant to create an open, safe and comprehensive ecosystem that brings solutions for highly and fully automated driving.

In previous interviews, Li expressed the desire of building the Apollo self-driving platform into a business mode, which would turn things on the technology platform into sellable products. But he admitted that the current task for the Apollo self-driving platform is to put the autonomous driving technologies into use.

The 2017 Baidu World Conference was held just two days after Baidu, carmaker Chongqing Lifan Passenger Vehicle and Chongqing-based car-rental firm Pand Auto signed a framework agreement for strategic cooperation, which allows the trio to work together on autonomous driving and jointly promote the commercial application of shared cars equipped with self-driving technology.

The trilateral agreement perceptibly reflects that the investment spree in autonomous driving begins spilling over to the shared economy. And Baidu is obviously gaining the upper hand in the already fierce battlefield.

There are signs that Youon, the first listed bike-sharing company in China, is intended to have a finger in the development of smart cars. According to a strategic cooperation pact signed recently, Youon and BAIC BJEV, BAIC Motor's new energy vehicle unit, agreed to jointly develop a new-generation smart pure electric car powered by the Internet and multimedia information technologies, as part of a plan to promote the smart transit business. Although the smart car specially designed for Youon cannot be considered fully self-driving, it is possible that Youon would join the autonomous car race, as many bike-sharing startups in China are backed by the country's Internet and technology giants including Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

Tencent, the operator of China's popular instant messaging app WeChat which is reportedly testing its self-developed self-driving system internally, is a big financial backer of Mobike, the No. 1 bike-sharing company in the country. The leading Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba financially supports Ofo, the archrival of Mobike. Alibaba is viewed as the first BAT company to develop the autonomous driving technology in partnership with a traditional carmaker. And this summer, the free-floating bikes operated by Mobike and Ofo were visible and unlockable on Baidu's map app, giving convenience to users who want to use the bikes of the two firms.

Actually, Baidu partly fulfilled its autonomous car dream in July, when its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Li tested a driverless car on public roads in Beijing, catching the eyes of both Internet users and the police, which later launched a probe into whether there was any legal violation in driving an autonomous car on public roads.

"I can tell you that I actually received a fine ticket (after I tested a self-driving car on Beijing's fifth ring road in July). (But) I think that the mass production of self-driving cars is not far away because the fine ticket has been issued," Li said at last week's Baidu World Conference.

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