Driving around Beijing often feels unnervingly like a contact sport, with vehicles recklessly plunging through thick traffic, sneaking along the shoulder, or cutting through red lights—whether pedestrians are trying to cross the road or not. It’s hard to imagine a more challenging situation for a self-driving car.
Baidu, China’s leading Internet search company, is working on an automated car designed to cope with this traffic chaos. The company recently gave MIT Technology Review an exclusive peek at the vehicle in Beijing. Baidu is developing the car in collaboration with the German automaker BMW.
Andrew Ng, the chief scientist of Baidu, says he was riding in the car in Beijing last week when another vehicle swerved in front of it. “I was glad our driver hit the brakes, but then I found out it was the car that did it automatically,” he says. “If I had been driving, we would have hit the car in front.”
Baidu’s engineers showed the car performing several autonomous maneuvers around the company’s parking lot. For the past few weeks, the car has also been put through more rigorous tests on a 30-kilometer highway route beginning at Baidu’s Beijing headquarters, looping around the capital’s fifth ring road, and back. The car has autonomously merged into traffic, and successfully overtaken other vehicles.
Baidu’s project is less advanced than Google’s (see “Why Google’s Bubble Cars Might Catch On”). But the Chinese company is one of only a few to have been given permission by the government to test automated driving in China. And, given the level of congestion in cities across China, the market for the technology could be huge.
The software that pilots the car, dubbed Baidu AutoBrain, was developed at Baidu’s Deep Learning Institute in Beijing, a center dedicated to applying the latest machine learning techniques to the company’s products. Baidu has ambitions to be much more than China’s top search business. It is expanding into areas such as personal finance and banking, and has research scientists in China and the U.S. working on projects including artificial intelligence and wearable devices.
Some academics in China are also working on automated driving. A team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the country’s top scientific research institute, has been testing a self-driving bus for the past year. A team at Shanghai Jia Tong University is testing a self-driving car developed in collaboration with the domestic carmaker, Chery.
Most of the many carmakers around the world developing self-driving technology are phasing it in gradually, by rolling out vehicles that are successively more automated. Ng says the plan is for Baidu’s self-driving car to be completely autonomous from the start. The vehicle would only drive a limited number of routes to begin with, with new ones being added gradually.