Wireless Technologies

China's Baidu's autonomous driving is impressive in Beijing

Earlier this year, I got in touch with Chinese search engine Baidu about rumours it was going to launch a driverless car in the second half of the year. I was put in my place immediately by Baidu’s communications team as they said the media was misrepresenting what was actually going on. They were keen to emphasise that their autonomous car project is a “joint effort with BMW” and they prefer not to call it a “driverless car” as they are “not going fully autonomous”.

Yesterday the news finally came that Baidu has successfully tested its modified BMW 3-Series on complex routes in Beijing. The car managed to drive an 18.6 mile route around the city, executing a range of manoeuvres, including U-turns, lane changes and merging into traffic from ramps.

It’s an impressive feat, given the complexity of Beijing’s road networks. To give an example of how complex the roads in Beijing are, this is what the Marron Institute of Urban Management has said in its report on driverless cars in Beijing:

“Within the 1,088 km2, central city area, there are at least four levels of automobile roads, including urban express ways, arterial roads, secondary roads and branch roads. Furthermore, there are more than 4,200 roadway junctions, 1,555 ramps, 276 interchanges, and up to 2,800 signal-controlled intersections in central city area.”

Key competitors in this area are taking a number of different approaches to the driverless car race. Some car manufacturers are working with UI startups to invest in new technologies. Google is working on improving its cars’ ability to react to spontaneous situations. But Baidu wants to “advance incrementally through different environments, rather than through different levels of driving autonomy”.

It will be focusing on “fixed routes” driving and by using deep learning systems, Baidu hopes to expand the number of routes with HAD mapping. The aim is for the majority of China’s roadways to be mapped with HAD mapping in five to ten years’ time.

I was keen to find out how the people in Beijing feel about Baidu’s autonomous car project. So I got in touch with Baidu to find out.

“Autonomous car technology is still at an early stage, and clearly there is still a lot of work ahead and we are taking things step by step. We haven’t done an official survey on Beijing residents’ sentiment [towards autonomous cars] but Baidu believes autonomous cars can do a great deal to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and traffic fatalities —all of which are serious problems in China, and all of which are top priorities for local governments and for Beijing alike,” Trace Hu from Baidu’s communications team explained over email.

If Baidu succeeds, the potential impact could be huge. As the report on driverless cars in Beijing says, about “5.3 million travelling hours will be saved every day if Beijing transportation system applies driverless door-to-station and station-to-door service”. Plus, driverless car sharing will open up new avenues for parking resources to be saved. But it will be interesting to note how Baidu’s autonomous cars will develop to take into account unpredictable cyclist and pedestrian behaviour and weather conditions.


Also read:

Google’s self-driving report on slow driving and emergency vehicles

Driverless cars: Is semi-autonomous the future?


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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