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Baidu vs. Pony.ai: Who won Beijing’s AV road testing war?

BEIJING – A total of 56 vehicles fitted with autonomous driving kits traversed 153,565 km on the streets of Beijing in 2018, according to the Beijing Autonomous Vehicle Road Testing Annual Report 2018 released by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Economy and Information Technology (BJEIT) on March 29.

The report is the first of its kind released on road testing of autonomous vehicles in China.

Those 56 vehicles, which received Beijing’s autonomous vehicle road test licenses at various points from March to December 2018, belonged to eight companies that were lucky enough to be the first batch of companies getting such licenses: Baidu, Pony.ai, NIO, BAIC BJEV, Tencent, Daimler, Audi and Didi.

It’s an interesting mix: there is China’s leading internet search giant, a self-driving car startup, a Chinese smart EV startup, a leading Chinese EV manufacturer, China’s leading social media giant, two of Germany’s leading luxury vehicle manufacturers and China’s leading mobility services platform.

As of the date of publication of the report, 54 of the 56 vehicles had valid licenses to operate.

Baidu, without a surprise, dominated the field in terms of both the number of autonomous vehicles deployed and total kilometers driven, at 45 vehicles and 139,887 km, respectively, accounting for 80 percent of the 56 vehicles and 90 percent of the total kilometers driven.

Pony.ai, the Silicon Valley-based self-driving car startup, which received the so-called T3 autonomous vehicle licenses in Beijing in early July 2018 shortly before it completed its follow-on Series-A financing of $102 million, had just two vehicles that drove a combined 10,132 km. NIO came in third with just one vehicle that drove 2,415 km. The rest each had either one or two vehicles at the most and drove no more than 260 km in 2018. Didi was dead last with two vehicles and 78.1 km driven, with Audi not faring much better with just one vehicle and 80.9 km driven.  

On first look, Pony.ai seems to have outperformed Baidu in terms of average distance driven per vehicle. At 5,066 km, it’s nearly 2,000 km more than Baidu’s average of 3,109 km driven per vehicle.

Did the self-driving car startup just beat the autonomous driving giant at its own game?

Not so fast.

On further inspection, 20 of the 45 vehicles Baidu operated received their road test licenses on December 25, which meant whatever kilometers those 20 vehicles drove over the remaining six days of the year, if any at all, can basically be omitted.

In that case, the average distance driven per vehicle for Baidu increases to 5,596 km, and effectively, of the 34 vehicles that had any meaningful kilometers driven in 2018, 25 belonged to Baidu.

At least in the km driven per vehicle category, Baidu seems to have ended up on top.

While that measure is important, it is only one way to gauge how the eight companies did in their first year of battle in the autonomous vehicle road test “war” in Beijing. Where these vehicles operated and what type of road environment they encountered was another key measure that was not revealed in the Report.

In a more detailed Beijing Autonomous Vehicle Road Testing Technical Report (2018) published by the Beijing Intelligent Vehicle Connectivity Industry Innovation Center obtained by CBU/CAR, Baidu’s AV test fleet actually covered all eight types of road environments in three areas of Beijing where roads have been designated for autonomous vehicle testing (see Table), while Pony.ai’s fleet only operated in two of those environments. The rest had their vehicles operate in no more than three types of road environments.

Worth noting also is that Baidu and BAIC BJEV were the only two companies that conducted V2X testing.  

Baidu, then, again came on top in those measures

Unfortunately, no disengagement data was provided in the original report issued by BJEIT. The more detailed technical report obtained by CBU/CAR only lists the types of disengagements encountered (see Table) by all eight companies but no details were provided on how each fared in this important category. So it is impossible to determine who did well and who did not.

So who won the autonomous vehicle road test war in Beijing? The answer is inconclusive at best based on available information so far.

For now, the war will continue and others will join the battle this year. Beijing has opened 44 streets in four districts totaling 123 km of public road testing space for autonomous vehicles since February 2018, becoming the Chinese city with the longest such length. The plan is to further expand testing area to 500 square km and testing length to 2,000 km by 2022.

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