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The Neolix Technologies autonomous vehicle, powered by Baidu Apollo technology, stands on display at the Auto Shanghai 2019 show in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Photo: Bloomberg

Baidu’s self-driving car business has gone seven years without making money; it says it’s ready to stick with it for seven more

  • Since it started developing self-driving technologies in 2013, Baidu has yet to make money from autonomous driving
  • The company is committed to continuing to invest in the sector for at least the next seven years, the head of its autonomous driving unit Apollo says
Chinese internet giant Baidu has been developing self-driving technologies for seven years without making money, but the company is committed enough to the future of transport to keep going for at least another seven more, the head of its autonomous driving unit Apollo said on Wednesday.

“We are very confident internally that we will persist and continue investing in autonomous driving for another seven years,” Li Zhenyu, Baidu’s corporate vice-president and general manager of Apollo said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Whether this investment makes sense, we will only know at the end of the game.”

Li said the money to keep Apollo going will come from its parent company, Baidu, although he declined to reveal how much the Beijing-based search engine company has invested in the self-driving programme so far.

Last month, Baidu reported a 7 per cent slide in revenue to 22.5 billion yuan (US$3.2 billion) in the March quarter, weathering the economic slump from the coronavirus pandemic better than analysts had expected.

Autonomous cars are high on the development agenda for both the US and China, but fully autonomous technology has been hard to achieve due to the complexities inherent in navigating busy, real-world environments.

China’s Baidu completes ‘world’s largest’ autonomous vehicle test ground

Baidu started developing self-driving technologies in 2013, but has made recent moves to scale up its self-driving ambitions significantly.

Earlier this month, the company announced that it had completed construction of the 13,500 square metre (145,300 sq ft) Apollo Park in Beijing’s Yizhuang Economic Development Zone, which it claimed to be the world’s largest site to test both autonomous driving and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. It has also announced plans to build testing grounds and pilot operation zones for autonomous vehicles in cities including Chongqing, Shanxi province’s Yangquan city, and Anhui province’s Hefei city in the past year or so.
Despite competition both globally and with domestic rivals such as AutoX, and WeRide, the Beijing-based company jumped into the top five among autonomous driving technology companies in Navigant Research’s annual survey for the first time earlier this year, trailing only Google’s self-driving unit Waymo, Ford and Cruise.


China’s self-driving RoboTaxi hits the road

China’s self-driving RoboTaxi hits the road
At the press conference, Li said Apollo and its partners put autonomous robots to good use during the coronavirus pandemic, including for cleaning and disinfecting as well as to deliver food to hospital staff while reducing human-to-human contact.
He also highlighted opportunities in the area of smart transport infrastructure. Baidu is currently working with local governments in 10 Chinese cities including Hunan capital Changsha and western megacity Chongqing under its smart traffic initiative, ACE (autonomous driving, connected road, efficient mobility).

Traffic congestion is one of the issues they hope to solve through technology, Li said. Apollo has developed a smart traffic light system that can reduce the average waiting time for vehicles during rush hours by 20 to 30 per cent by adjusting to real-time traffic conditions, according to information on its website.

“In the past two years it has become obvious that car-road communication, especially in China, has the great potential opportunities for growth and commercialisation,” he said. “We decided to use our expertise in autonomous driving and artificial intelligence to meet this demand.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Baidu still keen on investing in self-driving cars