A global driverless car race with more players, including Toyota and Baidu

Jing Gao

Japanese automaker, Toyota, announced this week it will launch a highway-assist feature for its cars by 2020, around the same time that Nissan, General Motors, Apple and Google are expected to release their autonomous vehicles.

Toyota has been testing a new self-driving car feature dubbed, ‘Highway Teammate,’ in a modified Lexus GS, on busy freeways in Tokyo. The feature will enable a car to merge into highways, maintain and change lanes and keep a safe distance between vehicles.

The driverless car movement has gathered much steam since the beginning of this year, with an increasing number of Internet companies taking an interest.

Google aims to sell a fully functional autonomous car in five years. There have been rumors swirling that Apple is poaching Tesla engineers in preparation for launching a semi-autonomous car in 2019. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, announced Tesla will introduce an autopilot feature for its cars this year.

Major automakers are scrambling for a slice of the market as well. Nissan promises a hands-free self-driving car by 2020. Ford, Audi and Volkswagen have similar projects in the pipeline.

Toyota has said that in order to guarantee the utmost of safety, it has invested 50 million USD in a joint artificial intelligence research project at both Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Baidu so far is the only Chinese company actively working in the sector. At a June conference on cloud computing, Baidu – whose main product is a search engine, vowed to unveil a prototype driverless car by the end of the year. Speaking with the audience at the event, Baidu Senior VP, Wang Jin, explained Baidu’s driverless car will showcase its advancements in big data, satellite navigation, and artificial intelligence.

To be precise, Baidu does not seek to be an automobile manufacturer. Its goal is to instead, work with automakers to design the “mind and soul” behind a self-driving car.

Over the past couple of years, Baidu has made several forays into the online-to-offline space. Baidu spent 20 million RMB on web platform Nuomi, it continues to fund, ride-sharing app, Uber’s expansion in China, and it has poached Andrew Ng, the machine-learning mastermind and founder of massive online open course provider Coursera, away from Google. Connecting the dots, it might not come as much of a surprise if one day, an Uber-assigned driverless car empowered with a Baidu Brain, roams around delivering lunches ordered through Nuomi’s mobile app.

The biggest check on this otherwise stellar blueprint, however, won’t be the competition present in autonomous car-making. Instead, the prospect of future continued success for Uber China and Nuomi, both heavily financed by Baidu and currently underdogs in their respective sectors, remains gloomy.

(Top photo from Baidu Image)

Jing Gao

Jing founded her own blog Ministry of Tofu and worked with Los Angeles Times, Greenpeace and LinkAsia. She graduated with a master's degree in Journalism from the University of Illinois.

1 Comment
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