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Chinese firms put autonomous car development in high gear amid favorable policies

Self-driving cars backed by JingChi's autonomous driving solution. Photo: Handout

Internet giants and traditional automakers are strengthening partnerships for building intelligent, Internet-connected vehicles in China, where the restrictions on road tests of self-driving cars are being relaxed amid growing enthusiasm among domestic firms betting on autopilot.

Tencent, a leading Internet company in China, has joined in the autonomous car race by signing a cooperation agreement with Chongqing-based Changan Automobile, which allows the two partners to establish a joint venture company dedicated to designing an Internet of Vehicles operating platform and a big data platform powered by cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithm. This big data platform can materialize the functions including facial recognition, fatigue driving warning and drowsiness detection.

Tencent said that the joint venture company's Internet of Vehicles products would be "open to all automobile manufacturers and technology companies" and would be applied to Changan Automobile's latest car model which is scheduled to be released this year.

The joint venture with Changan Automobile is Tencent's latest push in the intelligent car field since November 2017, when the Internet giant released its vehicle-mounted ecosystem named "AI in Car", in partnership with five traditional automakers including Changan Automobile. Back then, Tencent said that it would provide its carmaker partners with intelligent, contextual and customized services by leveraging its abilities in content, social media, big data and artificial intelligence.

It also came after the recent revelations of photographs on the Internet showing that Tencent was testing its autonomous prototype vehicle modified from a Changan-branded sports utility vehicle on the roads of Beijing, which unveiled rules last year allowing companies registered in China to apply for government permission to test their self-driving cars on the designated areas.

The photographs paired with the screenshots of Tencent's employment advertisements hunting for professionals in the field of autonomous driving, who are believed to work at the company's autonomous driving laboratory.

Experts said that the cooperation between technology companies and traditional automakers in developing smart, Internet-connected cars has become a tendency because the former could design customized Internet-connected systems in exchange for the latter's vehicle driving data.

In China, big technology and Internet companies including Alibaba Group and Baidu have embarked on developing Internet-connected vehicle systems or self-driving cars in collaboration with traditional car manufacturers.

On Monday, China's business news provider Caixin quoted sources familiar with the matter as saying that Alibaba was conducting regular road tests of its driverless cars, which are based on the Level 4 autonomy that allows a car to be almost totally in control all the time without any human intervention. At this level, a car will only stop itself if there is a system failure or the conditions dictate that the human driver behind the wheel needs to take control.

The Caixin report said that Alibaba was employing specialists in mapping, perception algorithm and simulation platform for the autonomous driving research team, which is affiliated to the company's artificial intelligence laboratory. The report also said that Alibaba was looking for self-driving business experts, which are responsible for the negotiations and cooperation with the upstream and downstream firms of the self-driving industry, in demonstration of Alibaba's closer cooperation with traditional carmakers.

The e-commerce giant has launched the AliOS in-car operating system, which is set to power the Internet-connected cars it is developing with state-backed SAIC Motor.

Another technology giant Baidu marched into the autonomous driving field earlier than its rivals, and was recognized last year by the Ministry of Science and Technology as the bellwether in the national efforts to develop driverless cars. The country's biggest search engine operator has formed an ecosystem of nearly 90 global partners including carmakers, technology firms, research institutions and parts suppliers for its Apollo self-driving platform, which was established last spring. Baidu is planning to unveil a 2.5 version of the open-source Apollo platform, according to its website.

Besides technology titans and carmakers, the country's car-hailing leader Didi Chuxing is also eyeing the booming industry. Didi has announced a blueprint that focuses on developing sets of software for autonomous cars and providing a comprehensive platform where automakers can market the sharing services of their self-driving cars. In February, Didi formed an alliance with 12 domestic and foreign automakers including Changan Automobile, Kia Motors and Renault-Nissan Alliance to develop Internet-connected cars and market car-sharing services.

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