Baidu leads China’s self-driving charge in Silicon Valley

By Paul Lienert
| SUNNYVALE, Calif.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. Baidu, China’s leading internet search company, is set to announce the first vehicle manufacturing partners for its self-driving software next week, including Chery Automobile, one of the country’s biggest carmakers, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The partnerships may be announced in Beijing, but they are the result of work that is happening 6,000 miles away in Silicon Valley, where Baidu and more than 30 other Chinese companies are busy developing and funding software and hardware to power internet-connected, autonomous vehicles.

The goal is to get those vehicles on the roads in China, the world’s biggest auto market. The hope is that the same technology, embedded in exported Chinese vehicles, can then conquer the United States.

Baidu Inc, known as China’s Google, is playing a central role in that effort. Like Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google parent Alphabet Inc, Baidu is using what it has learned in mapping and artificial intelligence to design the software and systems necessary to make self-driving cars a reality.

Its project, unveiled in April, is named Apollo after NASA’s moon-landing program. The name indicates the scale of Baidu’s ambition, but also the difficulty of the project.

It is by no means clear that it will succeed in one of the most competitive parts of the technology industry. Chief scientist Andrew Ng and self-driving unit manager Jing Wang left earlier this year to form their own startups.

“The competition for talent is keen,” Jingao Wang, the new head of Baidu’s Silicon Valley self-driving team, said in an interview at its technology center in the shadow of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California. “There is never enough.”

Baidu has at least one advantage over Waymo, based just five miles away at the sprawling Googleplex in Mountain View. It now has a presence in the United States, whereas Alphabet has no footprint in China, after Google shuttered its website there in 2010 rather than bow to the government’s internet censorship.

SILICON VALLEY DRAGONS

In 2011, Baidu was one of the first of the new generation of Chinese companies to set up a base in Silicon Valley, in order to tap the world’s deepest tech talent pool. Since then, it has made itself the center of a “China network” of almost three dozen firms there, through investments, acquisitions and partnerships.

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