Robin Li, the CEO of Baidu, China’s biggest search engine player, strongly believes the company’s future growth lies in artifical intelligence and related areas such as autonomous driving.
The Beijing-headquartered firm has focused on diversifying its business in the face of rising competition and a difficult advertising market.
Baidu moved a giant step further toward that goal, as the internet giant unveiled its second-generation AI chip, its first “robocar” and a rebranded driverless taxi app at its annual Baidu World conference in Guangzhou on Wednesday, CNBC reported.
The Kunlun II, its second-generation AI semiconductor chip, is designed to help devices process huge amounts of data and boost computing power.
The chip will use 7nm process technology, with Baidu saying its computational capability will be around two to three times better than the original Kunlun. It will be used for autonomous driving, smart traffic, and smart assistants, among other use cases, Baidu said.
Baidu’s first-generation Kunlun chip was launched in 2018. Earlier this year, Baidu raised money for its chip unit valuing it at U$2 billion.
Semiconductors and artificial intelligence are two key technologies in which China is hoping to boost its expertise and strength. Baidu’s rivals like Alibaba and Tencent have both invested in semiconductors.
The interior of Baidu’s Level 5 robocar reflects its autonomous driving capabilities, as it contains zero-gravity seats, a widescreen curved entertainment display and a control pad, with the steering wheel and pedals notably missing.
Other tech bits here include voice and facial recognition, along with an advanced artificial AI system that analyses the internal and external surroundings to provide predictive suggestions to proactively serve the needs of passengers.
More robot than car, the vehicle is a prototype and the company gave no word on whether it would be mass-produced.
But the concept car highlights Baidu’s ambitions in autonomous driving, which analysts predict could be a multi-billion dollar business for the Chinese tech giant.
Baidu has also been running so-called robotaxi services in some cities including Guangzhou and Beijing where users can hail an autonomous taxi via the company’s Apollo Go app in a limited area.
There are currently no Level 5 autonomous vehicles out in the market, with most robotaxi services currently using cars with a Level 4 autonomy, ZDNet.com reported.
A car with level 4 autonomy can “perform all driving tasks and monitor the driving environment” but only in certain circumstances. For example, Waymo’s robotaxi at times stops driving whenever it is near traffic cones and blocks traffic.
In a demonstration of the new vehicle driving on roads, Baidu showed the vehicle could make U-turns, adapt its driving directions when a user chose a new location, and swerve around obstacles in real time.
“You can really take a nap during your travel and the space is big enough, you can even stretch your body inside the car,” a Baidu spokesperson said while performing the demonstration.
“Baidu has accumulated solid strength in self-driving chips and lidar sensor technology that uses laser light to measure distances and map surroundings,” said Zhang Xiang, a researcher at the Automobile Industry Innovation Research Center, which is part of the North China University of Technology in Beijing.
Zhang said fully self-driving vehicles still have a long way to go before they can reach the mass production stage or be used commercially.
The recent fatal self-driving car crash involving a 31-year-old entrepreneur in Fujian province has raised public concern about the safety of self-driving technology.
Lin Wenqin, founder of catering brand management firm Meiyihao, died in an accident after activating the autopilot navigation system while driving a Nio ES8 last week.
On Wednesday, Baidu also rebranded its app to “Luobo Kuaipao” (which means “radish runs fast”) as it looks to roll out robotaxis on a mass scale.
Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s intelligent driving group, told CNBC the company is aiming for mass public commercial availability in some cities within two years.
Two months ago, Baidu inked a partnership for state-owned manufacturer BAIC Group to build 1,000 autonomous vehicles over three years for its robotaxi service.
The robotaxis are being produced at 480,000 yuan (around US$75,000) each, which it touted at the time as being a third of the average cost for manufacturing a Level 4 self-driving vehicle.
Last week, Baidu posted its second-quarter results, with the company revealing its year-on-year earnings dropped by almost 4 billion yuan, amounting to a net loss of 583 million yuan. This was despite revenue climbing 20% year-on-year to 31.4 billion yuan.
Sources: CNBC, ZDNet.com, GizmoChina.com, China Daily, PaulTan.org