China’s Baidu is racing with Waymo, General Motors to develop self-driving cars

With no one at the wheel, a self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. is rolling around. On a Beijing street, its sensors spotted the corner of a delivery vehicle traveling in its tracks.

The taxi stops half a car away. “Very sorry,” a recorded voice tells the passengers. The steering wheel turns on its own while the taxi makes its way around the carriage. A Baidu technician watches from the front passenger seat.

Baidu is China’s biggest competitor in a multibillion-dollar race with rival self-driving car developers including Alphabet Inc. Waymo and General Motors Cruise to turn their futuristic technology into a consumer product.

Baidu and rival Pony.ai obtained the first Chinese licenses in April to operate taxis with no one in the driver’s seat but with a safety supervisor on board. This came 18 months after Waymo began its driverless car reservation service in Phoenix, Arizona, in October 2020.

Founded in 2000 as a search engine operator, Baidu has expanded into artificial intelligence, processor chips and other technologies. It says its autonomous vehicles could, if successful, make driving cheaper, easier and safer.

“We believe that the highest goal of autonomous driving is to reduce human-caused traffic accidents,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group.

Autonomous driving is one of a group of emerging technologies from artificial intelligence to renewable energy that Chinese companies are pouring billions of dollars into trying to create, motivated by the ruling Communist Party.

Beijing wants to join the United States, Europe and Japan in the ranks of technological powers to build its global prosperity and influence. This leads to the potential for new inventions, but it also fuels tension with Washington and its allies, who view China as a strategic competitor.

Baidu’s Apollo self-driving platform launched in 2017 and the self-driving taxi service Apollo Go three years later.

The chauffeur-driven taxi service began to take over in the event of an emergency in 2020 and has expanded to Beijing, Shanghai and eight other cities. Apollo Go says it made 213,000 rides in the last quarter of last year, making it the world’s busiest self-driving taxi service.

For driverless and supervised riding in the passenger seat, Apollo Go started in a 60-square-kilometer (23-square-kilometre) area in Yizhuang, an industrial district in the southeastern suburbs of Beijing with wide streets and few cyclists or pedestrians.

It’s very convenient,” said Zhao Hui, 43, who uses Baidu taxis in Yishuang.

“It might sound a little safer” than a human driver, Zhao said. Sometimes there are little things, maybe some things that people don’t even notice. They can spot them and stop.”

Other developers include Deeproute.ai and AutoX in Shenzhen. Pony.ai, founded in 2016 with venture capital backing, is road-testing self-driving cars and semi-trailers.

Owen Chen of S&P Global Mobility said the industry’s plans are “very bold to bring the consumer robotic taxi.”

Automaker Geely, owner of Volvo Car, Geely, Lotus and Polestar, has announced plans for self-driving vehicles linked to satellites. Huawei Technologies Ltd. For the manufacture of network equipment on self-mining and industrial vehicles.

The ruling party encourages automation to support economic growth by making the shrinking and aging workforce more productive. China’s working-age population has fallen by 5% since its peak in 2011 and is expected to decline further.

“People are very expensive,” Wei said. “Once this public service no longer needs people, the cost can drop quickly.”

As for whether China can lead the global industry, “it’s a race right now,” said Pete Kelly, managing director of the automotive division at GlobalData Plc.

“But they can do it easily, because of the way decisions are made and deployments in China,” Kelly said.

In 2019, McKinsey & Co. estimated China’s potential market for self-driving taxis, buses, trucks and other equipment and software in the trillions of dollars.

Kelly said early products are unlikely to recover their development costs, but they could be “loss leaders” to sell other services.

Baidu says it already sells the navigation system and other technologies to automakers. Chairman Robin Lee said in a conference call on May 26 with reporters that the company expects total sales of 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) based on agreements made so far.

The company says it spent a total of 5.6 billion yuan ($885 million) on research and development last year but has not disclosed how much of that amount was spent on self-driving vehicles. Baidu posted a profit of 10.2 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) last year, against 124.5 billion yuan ($19.5 billion) in revenue.

Baidu and its more advanced competitors have reached Tier 4 in the industry in the field of technology. Their systems can operate without a driver but must be preloaded with a detailed map. This limits the area they can work in. // Brief context about levels here? Not something familiar to regular readers… //

Then, operators must gather information about pedestrians and local conditions based on daily driving, a time-consuming process that will slow technology deployment.

For a maneuver like a U-turn, the Apollo system tracks up to 200 vehicles, pedestrians, and other potential obstacles within 100 meters (110 feet), according to Baidu.

Wei said Baidu would be happy to have foreign partners adapt its technology to their markets, but it had no export plans yet while focusing on Chinese cities.

Wei said intersections remain a challenge. Pedestrians in China are accustomed to drivers gradually making their way through crowds in the pedestrian lane while the green light is on, but a motorized car can’t do that.

“Our car is always going to be subject to people and it may end up not going through the light,” Wei said.

Baidu has launched its own self-driving car brand, JIDU, which unveiled a concept car this month and says it’s aiming for a sticker price of 480,000 yuan ($72,000).

The company also deals with three Chinese electric vehicle brands to produce cars with computers, radar and light-based sensors built in instead of on the roof.

To encourage others to use Apollo, Baidu has made the platform open source and says it has signed up 210 industry partners and 80,000 developers who may create products based on it.

Apollo Go says it plans to expand its self-driving taxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 by 2030.

“Compared to a human driver,” said Zhang Zhihua, 29, an interior designer who uses Baidu’s driverless taxi in Yizhuang, “the difference is not great. If you don’t look ahead and if you play on your mobile phone, the feeling will be exactly the same.”

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Associated Press video producers Caroline Chen and Wayne Zhang contributed.

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Apollo (in Chinese): https://www.apollo.auto/robotaxi

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