In 1999, bearing a dream of “changing people’s life with science and technology,” Robin (Yanhong) Li returned to China from New York and founded Baidu. After years of efforts, Li has one of the most impressive search engine technical teams in the world. Its management team, product design team, development team and maintenance team are also among the best in China. Baidu has become the most popular Chinese website in China, the largest Chinese search engine and the largest Chinese website.
In August 2005, Baidu was listed in NASDAQ, becoming one of the listed companies most attractive in the global capital market. Li himself has won awards including “CCTV China Economic Figure of 2005” and one of the “30 Prominent People in the 30 Years’ Reform and Opening Up.” He was also selected as the “Best Business Leader” and “Most Influential Business Leader in China” by American Business Weekly and Fortune.
In the forefront of the coming driverless car era
Baidu’s driverless car hit the urban road with guests sitting in it at the third World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province on November 16-18, 2016. Wang Jing, at the time senior VP of Baidu and general manager of Baidu’s Autonomous Driving Unit, claims that Baidu driverless car has a recognition rate of 90.13 percent in identifying items, 95 percent in recognizing pedestrians, and 99.9 percent in reading traffic lights.
Robin has invested heavily into R&D of fully autonomous vehicles. In May 2014, Baidu hired Andrew Ng, a renowned computer scientist and expert in robotics and machine learning as Baidu’s chief scientist for a subfield of artificial intelligence known as deep learning, which aims to improve search results and computing tasks by training computers to work more like the human brain. The Baidu L3 Division established in September at the Baidu World Conference 2016 will help automakers in automating and upgrading their products.
In late 2015, Baidu’s Autonomous Driving Unit, led by Wang, announced its plan to put driverless vehicles into small scale commercial use in three years and into mass production in five. According to Wang, Baidu’s driverless car has passed one of the five tests for a driver license – the team expects the car to pass all five tests by the time it is put into commercial use. Additionally, Wang claimed that Baidu was the first to put forward the aim of putting driverless cars into mass production by 2021, a goal that 17 other car manufacturers and internet companies have also set.
“Baidu has already built a strong team in Silicon Valley to develop autonomous driving technologies, and being able to do road tests will greatly accelerate our progress,” Wang was quoted as saying in a web posting in November 2016. Baidu already operates a unit based in Sunnyvale, California.
Baidu Map expands
At the beginning of last year, Baidu Map, a desktop and mobile map service provided by Baidu, initiated its internationalization strategies to become a world mapping service provider covering more than 150 countries.
In November 2016, Baidu announced that it will launch its map services for more countries and regions, which cover countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America and Oceania, and provide services for 99 percent of the world population. Baidu Map has been expanding rapidly globally, it has started strategic cooperation with the tourist administrations of four northern European countries－Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Currently, Baidu Map claims that it accounts for about 70 percent of domestic market share, with more than 300 million active monthly users and about 100 million car owners using its mapping service, according to the company.
“We will finally transform from a Chinese map provider to a world map provider and become the Chinese brand that provides global services,” said Li Dongmin, general manager of Baidu Map.
High definition maps is also crucial to autonomous driving, and Baidu has mapped around 6.7 million km of roads in China so far.
CarLife for connected cars
Except Baidu map, Baidu also has pushed hard to develop its own CarLife platform for connected cars. And it has secured BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Ford and Hyundai, as well as China’s own BYD, to use its CarLife connectivity platform, which, like Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto, enables cars’ internal infotainment systems to connect with smart phones. Volkswagen, which is by far the largest-selling automaker in China, has agreed to use the software. So have General Motors and Audi. Baidu is also working on a speech recognition and telematics service for cars, which would replace text as the mainstream way of expression and monitoring a car.
Baidu and Foton recently presented their Super Truck, which is equipped with sensors and distinctive surround windshield, a level-4 autonomous freight truck. The $300 billion Chinese trucking market is filled with long hauls and chaos, and there are 7.2 million trucks and 16 million drivers serving 5.9 million square miles of thorny countryside. Many trips involve very long hauls and some require two or three drivers. Super Truck with self-driving automation is developed by Baidu and Foton’s Big Data algorithms for connected cars and driverless commercial fleets. It offers dramatically reduced man hours and fuel consumption. China needs an answer to its freight logistics problem now; self-driving 18-wheeler provided by Baidu and Foton is one of the solutions.
“We will further collaborate with commercial vehicle OEMs to develop self-driving solutions and build typical application scenarios,” said Gu Weihao, general manager of Baidu Intelligent Vehicle. “On the other hand, being one of the pioneers in the industry, we’d like to introduce more self-driving technology providers to participate and grab a piece of the market share.”
And there are already competitors outside of China. Daimler, Volvo and Uber all have autonomous systems for trucks in the works. And Otto, a company recently purchased by Uber, has already used a self-driving truck to deliver 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer in a publicity stunt.
NVIDIA acquired its reputation in the technology world for developing graphic processing units (GPUs) and systems on a chip (SoCs) for mobile computing. At 2016 Baidu World Conference in Beijing, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced that NVIDIA has agreed to collaborate with Baidu on the incorporation of artificial intelligence in a cloud-to-car autonomous vehicle platform.
At the heart of this joint Chinese U.S. effort is the NVIDIA Drive PX2, which is a portable computer that can think and make autonomous decisions faster and better than a human. Baidu brings its cloud and mapping capabilities, and NVIDIA will be using its Drive PX2 supercomputer AI platform to co-create this framework, which will provide a mapping system that will enable the vehicles to plan for a longer distance beyond the reach of the conventional sensors. Apparently NVIDIA and Baidu also are joining in an aggressive exploration of artificial intelligence in other areas, and it likely will occur to them to use NVIDIA’s impressive portfolio of technology in far more markets going forward.
Chinese companies, with few exceptions, aren’t good at taking their products to the Western world, so growing out of China could be problematic. The move with NVIDIA would allow Baidu to expand outside of Asia.
At the 2016 World Internet Conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the point of visiting Baidu’s stand, where he listened to Li discuss autonomous car development. Xi sees digital technology as an opportunity for Chinese manufacturers to become more innovative.
Ten years from today, more than 50 percent of newly manufactured cars would be driverless cars, Li pointed out that driverless cars can be economical and efficient. For example, with mass production scheduled in 2021, driverless cars’ average running cost is ¥1.9/km ($0.28/km), according to Baidu’s predictions, which will be lower than that of today’s taxis at ¥3.2/km.
There is a long way ahead for Baidu trying to mass produce and sell autonomous driving car technology and scale up in this business globally. With leading chip maker NVIDIA and other stakeholders playing key roles, Baidu is expected to be at the forefront of autonomous driving tech.