Baidu Plans Fully Self-Driving Bus in China Next Year

By Jack Nicas Features Dow Jones Newswires

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- Chinese search giant Baidu Inc. is pushing aggressively ahead with autonomous vehicles, its chief executive said, including plans to release a fully self-driving bus in China next year.

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Baidu is betting it can be a major player in self-driving vehicles with its open-source autonomous-vehicle software called Apollo that it unveiled this year, Baidu Chairman and CEO Robin Li said at The Wall Street Journal's WSJ D.Live technology conference Tuesday. Mr. Li said Baidu is joining with Chinese car maker BAIC Motor Corp. to mass produce partially autonomous cars running Apollo by 2019, and fully autonomous cars by 2021.

But first, Baidu aims to complete a fully self-driving bus -- running on a designated route -- with a Chinese bus maker by next year.

Baidu is hoping its open-source software is more appealing to car makers wary of joining with Waymo, the driverless-car unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc. Mr. Li said he pitches car makers that Apollo will give them more control of their data and user experience than a closed system like Waymo's. "You have much better control over your destiny," he said.

Most industry experts agree, however, that Waymo has the most advanced self-driving technology, which it began developing in 2009.

Because Apollo is open source, Baidu likely won't make money from selling the software, but Mr. Li said there are many other business opportunities, including selling data, simulation systems, high-definition maps and even writing insurance policies. "It's a very large market," he said. How big? "Too large to estimate." Mr. Li said autos represent one-sixth of China's GDP.

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Baidu is also planning an immersive technology experience in self-driving cars, with interactive screens and entertainment, Mr. Li said. "When a passenger gets in a car, our vision is you never need to touch your phone anymore," he said.

Mr. Li said Baidu spends about $1.5 billion on research and development each year, or roughly 15% of its revenue. "Pretty much all of that is AI-related," he said.

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 17, 2017 21:00 ET (01:00 GMT)