China / Business

Tech firms rev up to put driverless vehicles on the road

By Meng Jing (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-03-20 13:51

Developers see self-driving cars as a way of reducing pollution, cutting traffic jams and saving many lives

Self-driving cars may not quite have got up to full speed, but they are likely to be racing into our lives sooner than many people expect, thanks to the research work of Chinese technology companies.

Baidu Inc, which operates China's biggest search engine, is ramping up its development of autonomous driving technology and aims to put a model on the road within three years.

Robin Li, its chief executive, says he sees great potential for the sector in China, as he believes such technology can help reduce pollution, traffic jams and road deaths".

A driverless car is in effect a robot on wheels, "it can see, listen, talk, think, make decisions and act," says Wang Jin, who runs Baidu's autonomous driving division.

"As cars are becoming smarter, they already know the precise location of other cars. Eventually, they will reduce traffic jams and improve safety," he says.

After teaming up with German car maker BMW to research the technology, Baidu completed its first road test in Beijing in December. Executives say the company plans to increase the size of its test fleet and is in discussions with domestic and international automakers.

Baidu is taking an aggressive approach in pursuing this futuristic technology, but it is by no means the only player in China.

Internet giants Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings and technology company LeEco Holdings Co have all teamed up with car makers to develop expertise and broaden their reach beyond smartphones and computers.

Industry insiders say companies are convinced that cars are rapidly becoming key components of the so-called Internet of Things, the network of interconnected computers, gadgets, appliances, furniture, machines and vehicles.

Yan Honghui at Analysys International, a consultancy in Beijing, says technology giants see cars as the ultimate vehicle to reach users.

"Imagine you're in such a car, you get to your destination and it recommends nearby restaurants or cinemas tailored to your needs and helps you get a discount or select good seats," she says.

Despite the exciting prospects, analysts say self-driving technology is still very much in the development stage.

Nevijo Mance, vice-president in charge of research and development for BMW China, says car steering wheels will eventually be replaced by computers, but not for a while.

"What we always say is that autonomous technology is, or will be, available earlier than the legal framework will allow for making such technology available to consumers," he says.

Tech firms rev up to put driverless vehicles on the road

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