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Baidu's Boffin Describes Beijing's Homegrown Self-Driving Car

China's Google also wants a wondercar, and China's regulators are opening the roads for it

1 min read
A silhouette of a car with a Baidu logo
Illustration: Randi Klett; Images: iStockphoto

Baidu's self-driving car project will hit Beijing highways by year's end, just as the company’s CEO has suggested, the company’s top AI researcher said yesterday.

“Our idea is not that a car should totally replace the driver, but that it will give the driver freedom,” Yu Kai, Baidu’s top AI researcher, told the South China Morning Post. “So the car is intelligent enough to operate by itself, like a horse, and make decisions depending on different road situations." 

That equine analogy has been used before, notably by design guru Don Norman. “Loose reins: the horse is in control and takes you home,” Norman said in a keynote speech last summer. “Tight reins are to force the horse to do things that are uncomfortable—but not dangerous.” 

It is sobering to think that after more than a century of development, the designers of horseless carriages are still modeling their babies… on horses.

Back in March, Baidu’s chief executive, Robin Li, gave the first hint that the company was readying a driverless car for public testing. Even before that, Baidu had announced that it was combining its own expertise in super-detailed maps with BMW’s carmaking prowess. Such maps are accurate to within 10 to 20 centimeters, which is what today’s robocars need to orient themselves.

The South China Morning Post also reports that a Baidu spokesman thought that a self-driving car application could attract customers to the company’s other map-based services. He also argued that autonomous driving links up naturally with Baidu’s other artificial-intelligence projects, including one that recognizes images dredged up in searches and another that translates languages.

Indeed, Yu Kai says on his lab’s Web page that he got his start devising algorithms for image recogition and related problems in data searches.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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