December 14, 2017

Some analysts describe the China-based company Baidu as the “Chinese Google.” In the context of Baidu’s most recent development, this may be a more accurate description than ever.

Baidu has released its first attempt at a self-driving car, and it’s successful enough to be allowed on the road for test runs. The company modified a BWW 3-Series for the project and assigned to it an 18.6-mile route around the capital city that included highways, side streets, and everything in between. In the process of its test run, Baidu’s car mad left and right turns, u-turns, lane changes, highway on- and off-ramp merges, and car passes.

Although multiple American automakers have developed products that do this, Baidu represents the first Chinese manufacturer to perfect the art of autonomous driving. Baidu’s success fulfills the promise that Baidu and BMW made in June when they announced that their partnership would plan to launch a self-driving car within the year. The car hasn’t quite “launched” into the market, but there’s something to be said for its on-road voyages.

Before Baidu, two general trails had been blazed to reach to the autonomous car; automakers started with normal cars and added more and more features until cars could drive themselves, while Google engineered an autonomous car was not made for humans to drive whatsoever. Now with Baidu’s self-driving model, a third path has been created that involves an attempt “to advance incrementally through different levels of driving autonomy.” For example, Baidu is currently working on a self-driving bus that will drive the same route every day. This is simpler than a fully autonomous vehicle that can drive anywhere as the solutions to fewer driving solutions have to be programmed into the vehicle’s software.

Even in the more simplified bus situation, extremely detailed maps that highlight the precise location of lane markers and curbs as well as the height of traffic lights and what every sign says. Once the brunt of that work has been completed however, the vehicle can just have it programmed into its software so that the bulk of its computing power and sensors are devoted to adjusting based on temporary obstacles like pedestrians and other cars.

Accordingly, Baidu has commenced making its own maps (furthering its reputation as the “Chinese Google”) and claims that it can have the majority of China’s roadways mapped within five to ten years.

The idea of autonomous public transit is an extremely relevant and important take on the autonomous driving problem that international engineers are tackling. Trains are already widely autonomous in many cities (though there are still human drivers on the SF bay area’s infamous BART trains), but buses, munis, and other public transit modes could be made safer, faster, and easier to track with the right autonomous driving technology.

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