27 May 2019
Google enjoys a huge lead in the field of autonomous driving technology, but Baidu doesn't want to be left behind. Photo: Internet
Google enjoys a huge lead in the field of autonomous driving technology, but Baidu doesn't want to be left behind. Photo: Internet

Baidu casts hat into driverless car ring

Baidu Inc., China’s search engine giant, has joined efforts to push the automobile industry to the driverless-car era.

And Wang Jing, senior vice president in charge of the company’s autonomous driving efforts, believes that China has good chances of dominating the field, Bloomberg reported.

“Chinese carmakers started making cars 100 years after others and a lot of the core technology aren’t in Chinese hands, such as engines.” the 51-year-old Wang said.

“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 US, giving China the chance to catch up and seize leadership.”

This early, the field is already crowded.

Google Inc., which started developing autonomous cars in 2009, has tested self-driving vehicles for more than 2 million miles and is considering making its self-driving car unit a stand-alone business under the Alphabet Inc. corporate umbrella later this year.

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors Inc., has said his customers will be able to summon an electric car to drive autonomously from Los Angeles to New York within two years.

General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. are also in hot pursuit of this emerging market.

But Wang is undeterred. He thinks Baidu can leverage its expertise in artificial intelligence, data mapping and internet connectivity to excel in autonomous driving technology.

Robin Li, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, has invested heavily into 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 the human brain.

The company hired Andrew Ng, a renowned computer scientist and expert in robotics and machine learning as Baidu’s chief scientist in May 2014.

However, it may take time for Chinese companies to scale up in this business, said Minzu Securities analyst Cao He.

“There is a long way ahead for Baidu and other companies trying to mass produce and sell autonomous driving cars,” Cao 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.”

Still, the prospects of the business are quite enticing.

Baidu estimates that the Chinese market for car sales, buses, taxis and related transportation services is potentially worth more than US$1.5 trillion a year in revenue.

Getting a sliver of that could be a huge new revenue source for Baidu.

By 2017, autonomous vehicles capable of traffic jam autopilot and autonomous valet parking should be on dealers’ lots, followed by highway autopilot with lane changing in 2018, according to Boston Consulting Group.

Vehicles capable of urban autopilot could be ready in 2022, paving the way for fully autonomous vehicles by 2025, according to the consulting firm.

“Chinese Internet companies like Baidu, flush with cash and confidence, are jostling for leadership in the holy trinity of the auto industry’s future: electrics, car sharing and – autonomous cars,” said Michael Dunne, president of Dunne Automotive Ltd. in Hong Kong. 

“Google enjoys a huge lead in autonomy today. But don’t underestimate the Chinese will to compete.”

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