Baidu signage in a city at night

Baidu to launch China’s first self-driving bus in 2018

Image credit: Dreamstime

The CEO of “China’s Google”, which is a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI), announced that the first vehicles to use Baidu’s autonomous driving software would be coming to roads next year.

Robin Li, CEO and Chairman of Baidu, made the announcement during an interview at The Wall Street Journal’s D. Live conference in Laguna Beach, California. Although autonomous buses are beginning to emerge elsewhere in the world – such as in Finland, Taiwan, Singapore and France – this would likely be the first autonomous bus in China.

Baidu will collaborate with a bus manufacturer on the venture, and could integrate other Baidu features into the vehicles, such as its world-leading voice interaction and AI operating system, DuerOS.

“We only touch the software part,” said Li at the event. “We don’t manufacture the cars, we provide the technology.”

Baidu has been working on technology for autonomous vehicles for at least a year, although has been largely silent about progress. In July, Baidu launched Apollo, an open source platform for self-driving vehicles.  According to Baidu’s website, Apollo will be tested under simple urban road conditions by the end of the year. Although Apollo is freely available, Li suggests that Baidu could generate profits by providing offerings such as maps and other information, entertainment and insurance for passengers.

“Our vision is that once a person is in the car, you need never touch your phone anymore, everything in the car is a better experience,” he said. He states that history has demonstrated that the open-source approach will have more momentum, and could make Apollo more appealing to automakers.

Li added that Baidu had a “solid plan” to install its autonomous driving software into semi-autonomous (L3) cars to be mass manufactured in 2019, and fully autonomous (L4) cars in 2021. These cars will be manufactured by established China-based automakers, BAIC group and King Long.

Baidu is one of the largest internet companies in the world, owning the dominant search engine in China, as well as being a leader in AI research.  The company spends 15 per cent of its revenue on research, mostly on its AI offerings, which, among other applications, is used to identify fake news from its search engine listings. In September, the company announced a $1.5bn |(£1.1bn) investment in self-driving vehicle projects over the next three years.

“We have entered a new age, the age of AI,” Li said at the event.

Following the death of a student due to a phony cancer treatment promoted in Baidu search results, which state media blamed on the company, and due to the increasing use of ad blockers around the world, Baidu could be looking beyond online advertising to generate revenue.

Other technology giants with no former associations with transport – such as Apple and Alphabet, Google’s parent company – are also making pushes to establish a place in the future autonomous vehicles market.

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