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Search Engine Giant Baidu Starts Testing Self-Driving Cars on Public Roads in Wuzhen, China

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【Summary】In Wuzhen, Baidu has brought out its fleet of autonomous cars from closed stimulations to public roads. To date, the program has transported over 200 people in the testing area, which includes a two-mile route that has been “mapped with centimeter accuracy.”

Original Michael Cheng    Nov 21, 2016 11:25 PM PT

Pilot programs for self-driving cars are in full swing this year, as Baidu announced it will start testing driverless vehicles in Wuzhen, China. The internet search engine giant joins Uber (testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and nuTonomy (testing in Singapore and Boston, Massachusetts) in deploying autonomous cars on open roads.

Earlier this year, Baidu received an Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Although the company hasn't officially started rolling out self-driving cars in The Golden State, it does plan to expand its efforts in that direction, with help from a secretive 100-person research team based in Silicon Valley. If all goes according to plan, the establishment hopes to release commercial driverless vehicles by 2018 with mass production to follow in 2021.

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Public Testing in Wuzhen

In Wuzhen, Baidu has brought out its fleet of autonomous cars from closed stimulations to public roads. To date, the program has transported over 200 people in the testing area, which includes a two-mile route that has been "mapped with centimeter accuracy." The vessels are able to perform basic driving maneuvers, such as switching lanes and passing slow-moving cars. Furthermore, the cars can also execute tricky U-turns and approach intersections confidently with other vehicles on the road. It can do all of these things while operating within the legal speed limit of the location at 37 miles per hour (mph).

Adhering to local speed limits is a crucial factor in self-driving pilot programs. Going below such thresholds is not common practice (by human-driving standards) and could contribute to road congestion, resulting in heightened emotions and frustration from nearby drivers. In 2015, Google's self-driving vehicle was pulled over in Mountain View, California for traveling unusually slow, at 24 mph in a 35-mph zone.

Like other self-driving tests, a driver is present inside the driverless vehicles in Wuzhen, which are supplied by Chinese automakers BYD, Chery and BAIC. To mimic autonomous driving conditions, the representatives do not have their hands on the steering wheel. However, they are encouraged to take control of the vessel, should the car become unpredictable.  

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Baidu and BMW 

During the same week Baidu launched its self-driving pilot, the company revealed that its partnership with BMW has come to an end. BMW's China CEO Olaf Kastner told Reuters at the Guangzhou auto show that the two companies failed to agree on the direction and timeline of its collaborative effort in bringing autonomous vehicles to mainstream markets. The European automaker intends to offer driverless cars by 2021, while, as mentioned earlier, Baidu is aiming for a 2018 release.

"I'm open for any partners, actually I'm talking to many," said Wang Jing, head of autonomous car development at Baidu.

"We now have found that the development pace and the ideas of the two companies are a little different," highlighted Kastner.

Moving forward, both brands have forged several partnerships to reinforce their efforts in building self-driving cars. BMW is working closely with Intel and Mobileye; and Baidu recently invested over $150 million in Velodyne, a California-based LIDAR technology business.  

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