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

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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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