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Didi unveils blueprint for autonomous driving with focus on collaboration

The logo of Didi Chuxing is seen at its headquarters in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

China's leading taxi-hailing company Didi Chuxing, which is zooming in on the establishment of a smart transportation system, has shed light on its ambitious blueprint for autonomous driving, an epoch-making technology estimated to generate billions of dollars each year in revenue from mobile Internet services and products.

Instead of building a self-branded self-driving vehicle like what many famous car manufacturers and technology companies such as Germany's BMW and China's Baidu are doing, Didi will put emphasis on developing sets of software for autonomous cars and providing a comprehensive platform where automakers can market the sharing services of their driverless cars.

During an international forum on smart, Internet-connected cars last week, Didi's Chief Technology Officer Zhang Bo said that the autonomous driving goals will be achieved through broad collaboration with domestic and foreign carmakers, which will make profits by connecting their future autonomous cars with the Didi platform.

Zhang likened Didi's platform to an "open ecosystem", where automakers will share profits with Didi, saying that how much money they will earn depends on how many self-driving car rides are ordered by customers.

Didi, which acquired the China operation of archrival Uber in 2016, which is also dedicated to developing self-driving technology, has taken a major step in efforts to fulfill its dream for autonomous driving.

In February, Didi forged a seemingly loose alliance with 12 domestic and foreign automakers including Geely Automobile, Changan Auto, BYD, Kia Motors and Renault-Nissan Alliance by signing an agreement, which helps those carmakers market car-sharing services and new energy cars including electric vehicles.

With some of them having unveiled plans to develop autonomous or semi-autonomous cars, those automakers are entitled to be included into a yet-to-be-established automobile-sharing platform on Didi's app, through which they can operate their own car-sharing services. In addition, Didi will also participate in some automakers' design work, offering advice for making cars that are more suitable for taxi-sharing and car-sharing services and attach more importance to safety and energy efficiency than speed.

The alliance could be seen as a major pillar for Didi's desire to build a three-pronged intelligent transportation system comprising taxis, shared bikes and shared cars (very possibly including those equipped with autonomous driving function).

Just over a month after the establishment of the alliance, Didi materialized its cooperation with automakers by signing a strategic agreement with CHJ Automotive, an emerging Chinese carmaker committed to building smart, Internet-connected cars.

Under the agreement, the two companies will strengthen cooperation in areas of autonomous driving, Internet-connected services and operation of smart car fleet. The two partners will also set up a joint venture company responsible for developing smart electric cars for car-sharing service, according to the agreement.

Domestic media reports said that CHJ Automotive was planning to launch two two-seat smart electric vehicles.

Competitive edge

Didi has advantages in the development of self-driving technology.

Zhang predicted that Didi would become China's biggest platform for the operation of smart car-sharing service in the future because it provides a channel for automakers to commercialize their smart cars especially at a time when most consumers would not think it is necessary to buy a smart car, which is imaginably used for special road conditions.

At present, Didi is the largest car-hailing platform in China, where it receives 20 million taxi-hailing orders every day and teams up with more than 5,000 companies across the country that lease cars to Didi's drivers, the Financial Times reported.

Thanks to the large number of taxi-hailing orders, Didi enjoys an overwhelming edge in collecting big data from the rides, which can be used for the development of artificial intelligence, a key technology needed for autonomous driving.

Didi completed a round of fundraising worth more than $4 billion in December last year, when the company said that the fund would be injected into the research and development of artificial intelligence technology. A month after the financing, Didi announced the establishment of an artificial intelligence laboratory, which it said would play a decisive role in its efforts to set up a smart transportation ecosystem focusing on travel efficiency and experience.

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