Baidu banks on open platform for self-drive cars to recoup loss

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 11:21pm

Baidu, the operator of China’s dominant online search engine, is banking on its artificial intelligence business to get it back on track after its sales took a hit from a medical advertising scandal last year.

Instead of marketing self-driving cars directly to customers which the firm had been developing, Baidu is hoping that its AI platform, called Project Apollo, which offers open-source and complete autonomous software to car manufacturers, will be a win-win deal for itself and carmakers.

“We are not here to disrupt. We want to empower the OEMs,” said Lu Qi, the company’s president and chief operating officer, at the D.Live Asia technology conference in Hong Kong on Friday.

He also said that Baidu would announce its self-driving car partners in July.

The race is on for in AI-powered products such as self-driving cars among technology firms. Lu believes that the US internet giant Google currently has the upper hand. However, he is confident that Baidu will take pole position in three to five years because the ecosystem of Apollo will be ahead of any closed system.

Lu, a leading AI expert and a former Microsoft Corp executive, joined Baidu in January following a string of management changes to focus on AI. To strengthen its reach in AI, Baidu in April bought US start-up xPerception, a specialist in visual perception, a key technology that enables intelligent hardware such as robots and drones to “see” the world.

The switch towards AI follows as competition for online advertising, which makes up the bulk of Baidu’s profits, is intensifying in China.

Alibaba, the owner of the South China Morning Post, which operates the world’s largest online shopping platforms, is increasingly receiving revenue from advertisements on its Tmall and Taobao platforms.

Tencent Holdings, operator of China’s largest mobile social network, is also selling advertising to more than 800 million users of its WeChat service.

Baidu’s sales and revenue for last year suffered after a public backlash from the death of a medical student linked to an advertising fiasco. The company, founded by Robin Li, stopped selling medical and health care-related ads and its stock price plunged 13 per cent last year, wiping US$6.9 billion off its market value.

AI was named a big theme in technology for China at the conference, along with smart transportation and robotics.