China’s Baidu competes with Waymo and GM to develop autonomous cars | business news

By JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer

BEIJING (AP) — With no one behind the wheel, a self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. is cruising down a Beijing street when its sensors spot the corner of a delivery cart jutting into its lane.

The taxi stops half a car away. “Sorry,” a recorded voice says to passengers. The steering wheel turns on its own while the taxi moves around the cart. A Baidu technician watches from the front passenger seat.

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

Baidu and a rival, Pony.ai, received the first licenses from China in April to operate taxis with no one in the driver’s seat but a security supervisor on board. That came 18 months after Waymo began self-driving ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona, in October 2020.

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

“We believe that the main 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 variety of emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to renewable energy, that Chinese companies are pouring billions of dollars into trying to create, pushed by the ruling Communist Party.

Beijing wants to join the United States, Europe and Japan in the ranks of technological powerhouses to build its prosperity and global influence. That opens up the possibility of new inventions, but also fuels tension with Washington and its allies, who see China as a strategic challenger.

Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving platform was launched in 2017, and the Apollo Go autonomous taxi service three years later.

The taxi service with a driver at the wheel to take charge in an emergency began in 2020 and has expanded to Beijing, Shanghai and eight other cities. Apollo Go says it provided 213,000 rides in the last quarter of last year, making it the busiest autonomous taxi service in the world.

For rides without a driver and with a supervisor in the passenger seat, Apollo Go started in a 60-square-kilometer (23-square-kilometre) area of ​​Yizhuang, an industrial district on Beijing’s southeastern outskirts with wide streets and few cyclists or pedestrians. .

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

“You can feel a little safer” than a human driver, Zhao said. “Sometimes there are small objects, maybe some that people don’t notice. They can spot them and stop.”

Other developers include Deeproute.ai and AutoX in Shenzhen. Pony.ai, founded in 2016 and backed by venture capital, is testing autonomous cars and semi-trailers.

Industry plans are “very aggressive in delivering the robotic taxi to the consumer,” said Owen Chen of S&P Global Mobility.

Automaker Geely, owner of Volvo Car, Geely, Lotus and Polestar, has announced plans for satellite-connected autonomous vehicles. Network equipment maker Huawei Technologies Ltd. is working on autonomous mining and industrial vehicles.

The ruling party is promoting automation to prop up economic growth by making its shrinking and aging workforce more productive. China’s working-age population has fallen 5% from its 2011 peak and is forecast to fall 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 at the moment,” said Pete Kelly, managing director of GlobalData Plc’s automotive division.

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

McKinsey & Co. in 2019 estimated China’s potential market for autonomous taxis, buses, trucks and other equipment and software at trillions of dollars.

The first few products are unlikely to recoup their development costs, but they could be “loss leaders” to sell other services, Kelly said.

Baidu says it is already selling navigation and other technology to automakers. It projects total sales of 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) based on deals made so far, Chairman Robin Li said in a May 26 conference call with reporters.

The company says it spent a total of 5.6 billion yuan ($885 million) on research and development last year, but does not disclose how much of that went to autonomous vehicles. Baidu reported a profit of 10.2 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) last year on 124.5 billion yuan ($19.5 billion) in revenue.

Baidu and its more advanced rivals have reached industry Tier 4 in technology. Their systems can work without a driver, but they must be preloaded with a detailed map. That limits the area where they can operate. // brief background on levels here? not something familiar to average readers…//

Operators must then collect information on pedestrians and local conditions based on daily driving, a time-consuming process that will delay the deployment of the technology.

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

Wei said Baidu would be happy for foreign partners to adapt its technology to their markets, but has no export plans yet as it focuses on Chinese cities.

Intersections remain a challenge, Wei said. Pedestrians in China are used to drivers gradually weaving their way through crowds at a crosswalk while flashing a green light, but a robot car can’t do that.

“Our car will always give way to people and could end up not going through the light,” Wei said.

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

The company also has deals with three Chinese electric vehicle brands to produce cars with integrated computers, radar and light sensors rather than bolted to the roof.

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

Apollo Go says it plans to expand autonomous taxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 by 2030.

Compared with a human driver, “the difference is not big,” said Zhang Zhihua, 29, an interior designer who uses Baidu driverless taxis in Yizhuang. phone, then it feels exactly the same.”

AP video producers Caroline Chen and Wayne Zhang contributed.

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

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