Baidu Working on China's Future Self-Driving Cars From Silicon Valley
【Summary】Baidu, China's leading Internet search company, is set to announce the first vehicle manufacturing partners for its self-driving software in Beijing, the result of work that is happening 6,000 miles away in Silicon Valley, where other Chinese companies are busy developing and funding software and hardware to power internet-connected, autonomous vehicles.
Baidu, China's leading Internet search company, is set to announce the first vehicle manufacturing partners for its self-driving software next week, including Chery Automobile, one of China's largest carmakers, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The partnerships may be announced in Beijing, but they are the result of work that is happening 6,000 miles away in Silicon Valley, where Baidu and more than 30 other Chinese companies are busy developing and funding software and hardware to power internet-connected, autonomous vehicles.
The goal is to get those vehicles on the roads back in China, the world's biggest auto market. The hope is that the same technology, embedded in exported Chinese vehicles, can then conquer the United States.
Baidu, known as China's version of Google, is playing a central role in that effort. Like Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google parent Alphabet, Baidu is using what it has learned in mapping and artificial intelligence to design the software and systems necessary to make self-driving cars a reality.
Baudi's project, unveiled in April, is named Apollo after NASA's moon-landing program. The name indicates the scale of Baidu's ambition, but also the difficulty of the project. It is by no means clear that it will succeed in one of the most competitive parts of the technology industry. Chief scientist Andrew Ng and self-driving unit manager Jing Wang left earlier this year to form their own startups.
"The competition for talent is keen," Jingao Wang, the new head of Baidu's Silicon Valley self-driving team, said in an interview at its technology center in the shadow of NASA's Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California. "There is never enough."
Baidu has at least one advantage over Waymo, based just five miles away at the sprawling Googleplex in Mountain View. It now has a presence in the United States, whereas Alphabet has no footprint in China. Google chose to shutter its website there in 2010 rather than bow to the government's internet censorship.
In Silicon Valley Since 2011
In 2011, Baidu was one of the first of the new generation of Chinese companies to set up a base in Silicon Valley, in order to tap the world's deepest and talented tech pool. Since then, the company has become the center of a network of almost three dozen firms there, through investments, acquisitions and partnerships.
Over the past six years, Baidu has assembled a formidable 200-person tech team, recruiting from top U.S. universities, including Stanford, and established leaders in the auto and tech industry, including Google, Facebook, and Microsoft.
Baidu has expanded its technical capability through the acquisition of vision and robotics startup xPerception, a close partnership with chipmaker Nvidia, and investments in other Silicon Valley firms such as Velodyne, a leading expert in LiDAR, the light-sensing technology key to allowing a self-driving car to "see" its surroundings.
Baidu's Silicon Valley AI Lab - Image Source Bloomberg
Baidu was followed by Tencent Holdings Ltd, China's largest internet company, which has bought its way into Silicon Valley, including a $1.8-billion investment earlier this year in Tesla Motors, the California electric car maker which is also working on self-driving technology.
Baidu and Tencent have teamed up to bankroll Nio, a startup aiming to put autonomous electric vehicles on American and Chinese roads by 2020, which is now valued at $2.8 billion.
Nio has its main offices in Shanghai and in Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. Nearby, another Chinese-funded self-driving startup, Faraday Future, has a small team of engineers working from the U.S. office of sister company LeEco.
The money that Baidu and other Chinese investors have invested in Silicon Valley has driven up the value of mobility startups such as Zoox, said Evangelos Simoudis, a Palo Alto venture investor.
Baidu Focused on AI
Chinese newcomers have now spread across the San Francisco Bay Area. Palo Alto, which is often considered the birthplace of Silicon Valley, has emerged as a major financial hub for China-connected venture capital firms such as GSR Ventures and ZhenFund.
In neighboring Menlo Park, the center of U.S. venture capital, China's largest automaker Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp has a tech center that houses the state-owned company's investment arm. China-backed Lucid Motors, another self-driving electric vehicle startup, is also based in Menlo Park.
"It takes the whole industry to make self-driving become real, instead of one company," said Amy Gu, managing partner of Hemi Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that invests in autonomous vehicle startups. "It is not only about spending money, but about being able to come up with real products for which customers will pay."
It is not clear how quickly Baidu will get to the point of producing such a product.
The company is struggling with a decline in its core advertising business, hurt by government curbs on medical ads in China and some unsuccessful side ventures. It is now looking to shift its focus to artificial intelligence under the guidance of Qi Lu, a former Microsoft executive. Self-driving is a key application of that.
Baidu has not specified how it intends to make money from the open-source self-driving Apollo project, but it has said it will integrate cloud-based data services into the platform, similar to what Google has done with its omnipresent Android smartphone operating system.
The company may announce further details at a developer conference it has scheduled for July 5th in Beijing, when it releases some Apollo technology for cars driving on urban streets and will announce its first manufacturing partners.
That could be a turning point when the technology focus will begin to shift from California to China, according to Simoudis."The dependence on Silicon Valley talent may not be eliminated, but it will continue to diminish as the Chinese build their own capabilities," he said.
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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