Auto Industry

Into the fast lane

Baidu launches robocar; NIO reels from crash


The Chinese media rarely mentions the once ubiquitous BAT acronym nowadays. Baidu’s market value has been dwarfed not only by fellow BAT constituents Alibaba and Tencent but also by younger internet firms such as Meituan. That’s why newer labels are in vogue in the internet sector, such as ATM (see WiC498).

However, while an out of favour Baidu merited less mention in the media in recent years that now looks like less of a bad thing. After all, it is the media darlings in the internet sector that have got pummelled this summer by antitrust regulators. Baidu has emerged largely unscathed from the crackdown.

One reason – which we reported on earlier this year – is that Baidu’s refocused mission in artificial intelligence and autonomous driving ticks more of the boxes in Beijing’s policy agenda, making it less vulnerable to regulatory risk than its peers (see WiC533). There were signs of this trend last week when Baidu launched another self-designed AI chip, as well as another new ‘robocar’ as part of its annual Baidu World trade show. Fanfare for the event bucked a trend in which many of Baidu’s peers have actively shunned the limelight. Perhaps tellingly, Baidu’s tech conference featured on state broadcaster CCTV’s various platforms, signalling a note of approval.

Putting this in context, Alibaba founder Jack Ma has barely made a public appearance this year – let alone share a stage with popular hosts from the state broadcaster.

Baidu’s founder (and still CEO) Robin Li ploughed the patriotic line, telling his TV interviewer that the country’s Olympic diving team (which won seven golds in eight events in Tokyo last month; see WiC552) have worked with a Baidu “AI coach”. Baidu’s scientists helped to develop a training system that improved Chinese divers’ posture and movement, he told CCTV.

A more commercially compelling prospect for Baidu’s investment in AI, however, is autonomous driving. “We believe that the cars of the future will be robocars. They will drive autonomously, acting as both an intelligent assistant and loyal companion, and be self-learning,” Li explained at Baidu Live, after launching the firm’s second-generation AI chip, the Kunlun 2.

This processor will be deployed in technologies that support driverless vehicles. To this end Baidu also unveiled its new ‘robocar’ (see photo above). The prototype boasts futuristic features such as huge interior screens for passenger entertainment, though Li didn’t say when the vehicle might take to China’s roads commercially.

Baidu has reportedly invested more than Rmb100 billion ($15.4 billion) in developing its AI and autonomous driving businesses, and hopes to take pole position as more of its technology finds real world applications. Of course, there are no guarantees that the hefty investments will pay off, with ‘smart vehicles’ still in their infancy as an industry.

That was apparent again this month when a rich young entrepreneur from Fujian died in a crash involving his electric vehicle. says the EV– developed by Nasdaq-listed NIO – failed to detect another car ahead when it was in ‘pilot mode’. But the underlying problem, the newspaper warned, is that many local car owners are confusing ‘driver-assist’ functions with fully autonomous driving.

Most modern vehicles offer some form of driving assistance technology, often in the form of lane control and adaptive cruising speed. But these systems are not designed to replace human drivers. Since the crash, NIO has reiterated that the pilot mode is not for autonomous driving, for instance, and that drivers should keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road at all times.

The problem is that some carmakers have been overstating what their ‘driver-assist’ functionality can do, says, with some drivers wrongly expecting full autopilot. A vice president at NIO put out a social media post implying that its driver-assist system allowed him to eat while driving (which is illegal in China), the website also reported. Industry experts are proposing a new approach in which the features on offer are more carefully named. XPENG – another EV manufacturer – has removed “autopilot” terminology from its driver-assist system, while rival Li Auto has deleted the “advanced” phrase from its website.

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