While the public is asking, “When are we going to ride in autonomous cars?,” technology companies have been moving apace to test them on designated roads. In China’s capital city Beijing, eight firms drove a total of 153,600 kilometers (95,442.6 miles) through their autonomous fleets in 2018, and Baidu, the country’s largest search engine service seen as a local answer to Google, has built a big lead.
That’s according to new data released by Beijing’s transportation regulators in their first report on the city’s licensed self-driving cars. While the authority did not specify conditions of the road tests — say, the number of instances when a human driver had to intervene to prevent an accident, namely the level of “disengagement” that California’s counterpart report asked for — Beijing’s data offers the public an early glimpse into a fledgling field.
Baidu registered nearly 140,000 kilometers in Beijing last year, representing about 91 percent of total self-driving distances traveled by the eight licensed transportation companies in the city. The firm’s leading position is closely linked to its pledge to go all out for artificial intelligence. When it comes to AI’s application in mobility, Baidu stays clear of making hardware and runs an open platform called Apollo that lets third-party developers tap its autonomous tech.
Apollo has joined hands with 135 car manufacturers, parts suppliers and other car allies at last count. Its partners range from international automakers Volvo and Ford to local electric-vehicle startups Byton and Nasdaq-listed NIO.
Baidu was also the first to nab a batch of L3 licenses to trial self-driving cars in Beijing, where Baidu is headquartered and is the country’s first city to allow such road tests. Robocars are now testing in more than 10 Chinese cities, including first-tier Beijing and Shanghai, as well as smaller urban centers like Changsha, where Baidu is working with the municipal government to bring 100 automated cabs to the city by the end of this year.
The runner-up on Beijing’s road-test list, Pony.ai, lagged behind Baidu by a large margin at 10,132.9 kilometers. But the three-year-old company has attracted large sums of investor money, in part thanks to the resume of co-founder James Peng, who was the former chief architect of Baidu’s autonomous driving unit. The southern China-based startup counts Sequoia Capital China as one of its seed investors and nearly reached $1 billion in valuation after raising $102 million in funding last July.
Other self-driving companies testing in Beijing included social and gaming giant Tencent, ride-hailing platform Didi Chuxing and car makers NIO, Audi AG, Daimler AG and Beijing’s state-owned BAIC Group. Didi, which made safety a priority across company divisions following two passenger murders last year, ran the least self-driving miles in Beijing last year, but the company holds great potential to unlock mountains of car-hailing data that could help autonomous vehicles predict road conditions.
Notably missing from the list is Roadstar.ai, a self-driving startup that once rivaled Pony.ai and secured a record $128 million Series A round less than a year ago. Chinese tech news blog Liangziwei reported this week that shareholders are asking to dissolve and liquidate the Shenzhen and Silicon Valley-based firm following months of infighting among its senior executives.
Also unmentioned is Huawei, a potentially formidable player in autonomous driving. The telecom equipment maker’s foray into self-driving predates many other familiar names. Back in 2016, Huawei was among a group of tech firms and car makers to form the Global Cross-industry 5G Automotive Association aimed at developing communications technology and commercial solutions for automated driving. Members of the alliance included Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ericsson, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm. More recently, Huawei’s partnership with Audi brought more light to its ambition in autonomous tech, as it provided chipsets to power Audi’s L4 (which is more autonomous than L3) self-driving sedans.