Baidu is taking its love for AI technology — particularly self-driving cars — to the next level by beginning a long-term official test of its high-tech vehicles in the city of Baoding in northern Hebei province. Close to the capital, but not too close.
The search engine giant is a long-time investor in AI technology projects and has been developing a line of self-driving cars for years, designed to someday make roads safer across China. People’s Daily reports that Baidu will spend the next three to five years testing in Baoding to improve user experience, while also exploring business models.
While this sounds like great news for the future safety of Chinese roads, it sure took a while to get this far.
As Baidu CEO Robin Li learned the hard way recently, strict government regulations on self-driving technology can make it difficult to test and develop driverless vehicles. Last week, at the Baidu Create Conference held in Beijing, Li live-streamed a video of himself riding in the passenger seat of a self-driving car — which he apparently forgot is against the law in China’s capital city, prompting a police investigation.
Traffic regulations in most Chinese cities ban self-driving cars. The technology is still relatively new and several incidents have proven that it might not yet be ready to tackle China’s hectic city roads and highways. Tesla came under fire last year after one of its drivers died in a fatal crash while using technology that had been billed as “self-driving” to its users.
Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk clapped back at those doubting the safety of his cars, pointing out that if they became widespread, they could save more than 50,000 lives each year. Li recently echoed this sentiment, saying, “When self-driving cars become common, lives will be saved. It’s of great economic and social significance.”
Dangerous or not, Baidu’s self-driving cars will not immediately be thrown to the wolves in downtown Baoding, but instead will stay within an enclosed “car test zone,” where they’ll work with normal road infrastructure without the risk of hurting drivers.
It’s fair to say that Baidu has come a long way since developing their first self-driving car in 2015. According to Li, no mere traffic violation will stop them from continuing to pursue their dreams. He says that Baidu applied for more AI patents last year than the entire country of Japan combined.
As he puts it: “The internet has improved the efficiency of people-to-people communication; AI will turn the impossible into the possible.”
By Caroline Roy
[Image via People’s Daily]
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