BMW's Chinese Robocar Tests Will Use Baidu's Maps

Superdetailed maps are key to self-driving cars, and in China, Baidu can provide them

1 min read
BMW's Chinese Robocar Tests Will Use Baidu's Maps
Photo: Krzysztof Dydynski/Getty Images

BMW is collaborating with the Chinese search-engine giant Baidu to provide its experimental self-driving cars with maps of select Chinese roads. And that's just as you'd expect, given that no self-driving car can manage without digital maps, and Baidu is the company that best provides them in China.

Maps are what drew Google (that other search-engine firm) to launch its pioneering robotic car project. Not the kind of maps that you now call up on your smart phone to guide you to your destination but maps that show the roads and what's alongside them, warts and all. That means every exit ramp, every driveway, and every curb.

A self-driving car must be able to perceive things itself, of course. But, like an NBA shooter on the basketball court, it also needs a clear sense of where it is.

One day, cars may have computer memories capacious enough to store detailed maps of all the roads in China. But even then they will need to be updated constantly to include changes, including changes as small as new lines painted on pavement and as large as the closing of a lane because of repair work.

Therefore, no amount of memory can free robotic cars from the need to talk to the road and to each other. Nor is any preinstalled feature likely to deprive Baidu and Google of a continuing stream of profits.

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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

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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.

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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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