Last week, in the tourist town of Wuzhen, in the Zhejiang Province of China, members of the public participated in the first open test of Baidu's fully-autonomous cars.
Accompanied by testing drivers—who did not have their hands on the wheel—passengers climbed into one of Baidu's vehicles and monitored a display of real-time traffic, obstacles, and people as they made their driverless journey down Ziye Road. The 18-car, all-electric fleet included a variety of vehicles, such as domestic auto brands BYD, Chery, and BAIC Motor, and was operated in partnership with the government of Wuzhen.
By the end of the week, more than 200 passengers had been transported on driverless cars through a 3.16 kilometer route—nearly 2 miles long.
The cars were equipped with high-tech sensors, including "Velodyne's 64-laser beam LiDAR, three 16-laser beam Velodyne LiDARs, two roof-mounted video cameras, a front bumper-mounted millimeter-wave radar, and a self-developed onboard computing system installed in the trunk," according to Baidu. The tech enabled the journey, which involved lane-switching, navigating intersections, U-turning, and passing other vehicles. Baidu said that its fleet successfully avoided cyclists, braked at intersections, and managed other complicated scenarios successfully.
"The Level4 autonomous driving technology, which our ADU has been doing since the beginning, is the largest investment Baidu has made," said Whitney Yan, communications manager at Baidu.
"We'd like to first have our autonomous driving vehicles—be it shuttle bus, rental cars, or taxis—for the use of public/shared transportation, since reducing pollution and traffic is one of the goals for our efforts in autonomous driving," he said.
As one of the top tech companies, Baidu, dubbed the "Google of China," has been at the forefront of the autonomous vehicle race. Its deep learning algorithm, Baidu AutoBrain, is capable of "high-definition positioning and mapping, and intelligent environment perception and control capabilities," according to the release.
In December 2015, Baidu established its Autonomous Driving Unit (ADU), which researched and developed its autonomous vehicle tech. The following month, it began testing in China. And last month, after setting up shop in California, Baidu's autonomous vehicles successfully completed a public road test in that state. Its plan is to begin rolling out fully-autonomous vehicles in 2018 and mass produce them by 2021. Initially, it said it will deploy the autonomous vehicles as shuttles for Baidu employees, for commuting between buildings.
"Baidu has an aggressive timeline for implementing autonomy," said Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle analyst at Gartner. (Ford says it will mass produce driverless vehicles by 2021, and Tesla claims its fully-autonomous vehicles will be available in 2019). "Its plans to get its employees into the vehicles as test subjects makes sense as a way to try out the technology before it goes to a wide public audience."
Ramsey added that the pollution and congestion issues are "problems that have to be solved in China."
Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, agreed that solving these issues is critical. However, he noted, they must add additional public transportation to make this happen. "If they are just replacing existing public transportation," he said, "that is not going to reduce traffic or pollution."
"It's good that they are pushing for public testing of autonomous vehicles," added Miller, "but safety should be the first priority, not reducing traffic and pollution."
The public testing is likely to be the first of more news in the autonomous vehicle sphere for Baidu. On Friday, it announced it would be separating from the automaker BMW, who it had been working on autonomous driving with, and is currently in search of new partners for autonomous driving research.
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.