The future is being driven by robotics. Photo: iStock

Baidu, best known for China’s eponymous No 1 search engine, is the company leading the charge of the global tech industry toward self-driving cars. At the 2017 China Auto Forum in Shanghai from May 14-16, Wu Xuebin, head of the company’s driverless-car initiative known as Project Apollo, lauded Chinese innovation and outlined the future of the project.

Driverless cars may hit the road in enclosed areas as early as this July and be fit for all roads by 2020. Will this breakthrough be enough to overturn China’s reputation for homogeny and lack of creativity?

Project Apollo is Baidu’s new pet project announced in April. It represents China’s commitment to using fresh and modern methods such as open-source coding to bring together the best minds of the international tech community, lower research costs, and thus finally turn the futuristic dream of self-driving cars into a reality.

Baidu will open up to the public the resources that it has been carefully cultivating since 2015, including software, hardware, and cloud data services in pursuit of that goal. This prioritization of collaboration and efficiency over individual glory is something new to the major players in the autonomous-car industry and may very well be the key to success.

Project Apollo is designed in three phases:
1. The technology will be opened for testing in enclosed areas this July.
2. Before the end of 2017, testing will progress to simple city roads.
3. By the year 2020, the driving will expand to highways and open city roads, realizing the full capacity of Baidu’s self-driving technology.

China’s progressive steps in this area have been surprising to some, but should that be the case? At the Auto Forum, Wu Xuebin whipped out a surprising statistic during his speech: according to him, 96% of Chinese people are willing to accept driverless cars, whereas only 58% of Americans and Europeans are. He accredits this to Chinese creativity and openness to new things, saying that these traits are much more prevalent in China than in the West. Although the source of this statistic is unclear, if true, it may prove counter-intuitive to some strongly held stereotypes.

China is viewed, by both its Western counterparts and many of its own citizens, as a country whose educational system and cultural reverence for community promote conformity over creativity. I still remember my Chinese teacher contrasting the English idiom “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” (meaning those who speak up get the advantage) with the Chinese adage “the bird that sticks its head out gets shot” (抢打出头鸟 – there are dangerous consequences to sticking out from the group).

But in the field of autonomous cars, artificial intelligence in general, and several other industries, China is proving that it is not afraid to stick out and lead the pack.

Carly O'Connell

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.