Driverless cars to be fully available within three to five years, says Baidu's Robin Li

Riding inside a self-driving vehicle with your hands emancipated could be just three to five years away, if Baidu chief Robin Li is to believed.

Li, founder and chief executive officer of technology giant Baidu, made the predication on Thursday on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature.

"I believe that it would take three to five years to see driverless cars running on the completely open roads in China," said Li, also a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body.

The billionaire also said that a high level of autonomous driving in most cases might become reality next year or 2020, when a driverless car is almost totally in control all of the time on highways without any human intervention.

Baidu has taken lead in the race to develop autonomous cars with its open-source Apollo self-driving platform, through which third-party members can access obstacle perception technology, cloud simulation services, high-definition maps and other related know-how that enable cars to run autonomously in designated lanes. Currently, the Apollo platform boasts more than 70 members ranging from traditional automakers and technology companies to parts suppliers and research institutions.

According to Li, Baidu will work with domestic bus manufacturer King Long to commence the small-scale production and trial operation of a fully autonomous minibus in the summer of 2018, and plans to start the production of autonomous passenger cars in partnership with mainstream carmakers next year. And this will happen only a year after Li was investigated and fined by the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau for testing a driverless car on Beijing's public roads without official permit.

Fortunately, Beijing and Shanghai have conditionally given nod to road tests of driverless cars by releasing rules that allow companies registered in China to apply for temporary permission to test autonomous cars in designated areas. Experts said that the policy would attract more technology firms zooming in on the development of autonomous cars to China.

Amid fears that the rapid development of self-driving technology will carry off some traditional carmakers, Li said that the fears were "unnecessary" because Baidu's Apollo platform is open to all carmakers. "In the future, the most advanced technologies [shared on the Apollo platform] can be directly gained by each car manufacturers. They can not only survive but also offer more options to consumers," said Li.

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