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Baidu, JAC join hands on development of self-driving car

Baidu's autonomous BMW parked at company headquarters in Beijing in January 2016. Photo: Bloomberg

China's technology and Internet giant Baidu and domestic carmaker Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group (JAC) have announced plans to jointly develop a self-driving car in the second half of 2019, which can be put into mass production.

The announcement, made on Tuesday in Shanghai, comes four months after Baidu unveiled its autonomous driving project named Apollo, which is aimed at providing its ecosystem partners with an open, comprehensive and safe software platform to integrate vehicles with hardware systems to build a complete self-driving system.

Baidu and JAC will develop the self-driving production car based on an existing new energy vehicle and will initially equip it with the Level 3 autonomy, which allows a car to drive itself on the highway only in certain circumstances, with the research and development of other functions like automatic braking continuing, said Li Weibing, head of JAC's electronics research institute.

Autonomous driving has a grading scale. The classification begins at zero, where drivers are constantly in charge of the car's acceleration, steering and braking. It ends with Level 5, where the car does not even need a steering or a driver. Most automakers see Level 4 as the next logical step for their vehicles. At that stage, the car is almost totally in control all of the time without any human interaction and will only stop itself if there is a system failure or the conditions dictate that the human behind the wheel needs to take control.

Li said that the actual utility of the self-driving production car will depend on whether it will be allowed by the law. Currently, China is drafting regulations for autonomous driving and tests of self-driving cars are banned on public roads.

On Baidu's part, it will provide JAC with comprehensive self-driving solutions for high-precision maps, auto positioning, environmental perception, decision-making and planning. The technology giant has established the largest high-precision map data collection fleet in China.

The partnership with JAC is beneficial to the Apollo project, which aims to put automakers, components and parts suppliers as well as technology companies under an umbrella. So far, the Apollo autonomous driving platform has enlisted more than 50 partners including Daimler, Ford, Microsoft and a number of research institutions.

However, some analysts have expressed concerns that few automakers would like to share with Baidu their vehicles' data, which can be used to improve machine learning and self-driving experience.

Starting in 2014, Baidu forged a partnership with BMW to jointly develop self-driving cars, but the cooperation came to an end in 2016, when sources close to the deal said that the two partners had divergences on who would take the leadership in the cooperation.

"The next high ground for the next-generation automobile technology is intellectualization, which automakers are reluctant to give up to other players," said a researcher from a carmaker.

JAC is the first automaker that clearly expresses willingness to develop self-driving cars in partnership with Baidu. According to JAC's development plan, the car producer aims to realize commercial operation of the Level 3 autonomy by 2020 and to complete technological preparation for the Level 4 autonomy by 2025.

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