Caixin
Sep 18, 2020 08:28 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Baidu CEO Talks Up ‘Smart Transport’ as Search Giant Continues to Bank on Self-Driving Cars

Baidu CEO Robin Li.
Baidu CEO Robin Li.

China’s economic growth will be driven for years to come by efficiency gains from innovations like artificial intelligence-enabled smart transport, Baidu Inc. CEO Robin Li said Thursday at the Zhongguancun Forum, a state-backed tech summit.

The comments came as part of a media blitz for Baidu’s autonomous driving platform Apollo, which at this week’s annual Baidu World conference demonstrated automated vehicles that the company says can drive independently without a safety driver.

Li’s firm is counting on them. A dominant force in the PC era when its search engine was a popular gateway to the internet, Baidu has sought to transform itself into an AI specialist as the largely-walled off mobile ecosystems of Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. have bitten into its core online businesses.

Baidu has poured money into artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous driving technology in recent years, which it said in its latest financial report would be an “important revenue driver in the years to come.”

The search engine cofounder said Thursday that AI-powered traffic lights and other smart infrastructure could increase traffic efficiency by 15% to 30%, thereby boosting China’s GDP by 2.4 to 4.8 percentage points.

Li’s remarks echoed a speech he delivered by videolink Tuesday at the Smart China Expo in Chongqing, where he said traffic jams would be a thing of the past by 2030 and that in five years, major cities in China could cast aside car purchase limits and restrictions that limit the days people can drive their cars depending on their license plate numbers.

Baidu has been piloting its Apollo Go driverless taxi service — using Hongqi EV vehicles developed with FAW Group — in the cities of Changsha, Hunan and Cangzhou, Henan in Central China. Earlier this month, Beijing gave the go-ahead for Apollo Go to begin offering robotaxi services in the city, with 100 pickup and drop-off stations in designated residential and business areas.

Li said the Apollo self-driving platform, which was developed by a consortium of more than 40 companies and through seven years of research and development, would be commercially available by 2025.

The firm looks set to benefit from favorable policy conditions. Beijing plans to accelerate commercial application of driverless cars by building the world’s first high-level autonomous driving demonstration zone, the deputy head of the administrative committee of the Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area said on Sept. 11. In June, Apollo also finished construction of its own 13,500-square-meter facility in Beijing for autonomous driving tests and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication trials.

According to a 2019 report by the Beijing Intelligent Vehicle Industry Innovation Center, Baidu Apollo has conducted more autonomous driving road tests than any other company in the city, with 52 self-driving vehicles driving 754,000 miles, some 85% of the total distance driven by test cars in the city. Self-driving startup Pony.ai, founded by former Baidu developers, came in second with five tested cars and 111,200 miles driven. Apollo was the only company that boasted experience testing driverless vehicles with passengers on board.

Contact editors Gavin Cross (gavincross@caixin.com) and Flynn Murphy (flynnmurphy@caixin.com)

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