Baidu Head Takes Self-Driving Car to Beijing AI Conference

Self-driving cars may be the future of personal transportation, but they are still forbidden on the crowded streets of China's capital city -- as Baidu Inc. Chief Executive Robin Li was reminded Wednesday.

The tech executive took a ride in one of his company's self-driving prototypes to Baidu's artificial-intelligence developer conference at the National Convention Center. Chinese news organizations and social media commenters quickly pointed out that driverless cars aren't allowed to operate on public streets.

Beijing traffic authorities couldn't immediately be reached for comment, although Chinese media reports said they were looking into the matter. Baidu didn't respond to a request for comment.

Who said the road to self-driving cars wouldn't have a few potholes along the way?

Baidu, which operates China's most popular internet search engine, is hoping to leverage its technology in mapping and artificial intelligence into an autonomous driving vehicle with the ability to navigate city roads and highways by 2020.

But Alphabet's Waymo, Ford Motor Co. and GM are all ahead of Baidu, according to a recent report by Navigant Research.

Instead of trying to go it alone, Baidu this spring announced Apollo, an open-source platform for self-driving software -- akin to Google's open-source Android system for smartphones. At the developer conference Wednesday, Baidu opened the platform so developers can begin downloading source code.

"Apollo can be the Android in the car industry," Baidu President Qi Lu said. "In the long term, our innovation, capability and speed will be better than a closed system."

Mr. Qi also said the self-driving vehicle platform now has partnerships with more than 50 entities, including chip maker Nvidia Corp., Dutch navigation maker TomTom, Intel, Microsoft Corp. and Ford.

Many details on those partnerships haven't been released, however, and it wasn't immediately clear how Baidu would work with Ford, a potential competitor.

Even so, Baidu's move to open-sourcing its software and forging partnerships might help it catch up to its competitors, analysts say.

"It definitely gives Baidu more of a chance to succeed," said Kitty Fok, managing director of research firm IDC. "Technology wise, Google and other global companies have spent a lot on investments."

To demonstrate the potential of collaboration, two of Baidu's Apollo version 1.0 self-driving cars were on hand for test drives at the developers conference.

Baidu's Apollo software, which provided a simple interface to drive a programmed route, was used in a Lincoln sedan. Baidu worked with AutonomouStuff, a Peoria, Ill.-based company that provides autonomous-enabling technology, to create the prototype.

"They're making a system that's very easy to add features to that you can adapt to different vehicles," said Josh Whitley, the lead software engineer at AutonomouStuff who worked on Baidu's autonomous vehicle. "No one else is doing a completely open-sourced version of an autonomous software system."

Junya Qian and Liza Lin contributed to this article.

Write to Alyssa Abkowitz at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 05, 2017 08:19 ET (12:19 GMT)