Would You Buy a Driverless Car from China?
Baidu is the dominant search engine in China and is often referred to as the Google of China. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Baidu is also following Google's lead in developing autonomous driving technology.
What is surprising, perhaps, is that the Chinese company may beat Google to the punch when it comes to getting their cars to market. In fact, the latest word from China is that Baidu has been working in collaboration with BMW and is ready to launch its autonomous car by the end of this year. Baidu has been working on a joint project with BMW since early in 2014, and they have been spotted testing their cars on the busy roads of Shanghai and Beijing.
Now one of Baidu's bosses has told a computing conference that the company is ready to launch a prototype car in 2015. This model will be used to trial how ready the technology is for use on the public road network. The Baidu car will be able to drive itself but will also have standard human controls in the cabin.
This is very different to Google's approach. The California tech giant has only recently moved away from using adapted standard road cars, such as Lexus and Toyota hybrids, and moved to using their very own purpose-built cars. These cars are completely autonomous and have no driver controls whatsoever. There is no steering wheel, pedals or gear stick, and instead the cars simply have two buttons: one for start and one for stop. Human input is limited to just these buttons and a destination selector. Google is testing the technology on public roads with cars that have been adapted to have human control.
The contrast between the approaches adopted by Google and Baidu is interesting and could be vital in determining who wins out in the battle to dominate the market in electric cars. Google is going down the fully autonomous route, removing any driver controls from their cars. Baidu, meanwhile, is more conservative, building cars with both autonomous capabilities and human controls.
Baidu is looking to help drivers rather than replace them completely. The Chinese company has also been investing heavily in the necessary technology, buying up companies such as IndoorAtlas, which specialises in mapping applications, and building their own capabilities in artificial intelligence and robotics in order to compete with Google.
Baidu thinks that it may have one important advantage over Google when it comes to introducing autonomous cars. Its own cars have the ability to drive themselves or be driven by a human driver, with the human driver able to intervene at any time. This makes it a lot easier for the Chinese cars to comply with current legislation on driverless cars, which almost everywhere requires the driver to be able to intervene and take control whenever necessary. To allow Google's completely driverless cars on the roads, the law would have to be changed extensively, and this may prove to be a higher barrier to overcome. There may also be greater resistance from motorists who actually enjoy driving or do not trust a fully autonomous car.
The insurance industry has also raised concerns about who would be liable in the event of an accident, and this is another area that has not yet been resolved. Baidu, however, may have another advantage here, as the Chinese government is far more authoritative than Western governments and could quite easily change laws to allow for the introduction of driverless car technology.
There is also some debate as to the final form that driverless cars will take when they first enter the market. Some companies are looking at driverless taxis as being the way forward, while others are looking at driver assistance only. Who wins out in the end may be down to who we trust enough to deliver such groundbreaking technology.