China’s Answer to Google’s Self-driving Car? A BMW

The company behind China’s leading search engine tests a driverless 3 Series.

Baidu

If you’re BMW—or for that matter, almost any automaker—you might fear the sheer financial mustard of Google in the self-driving car space. Consider Google’s market cap of around $500 billion. BMW’s? It’s a mere $60 billion.

That leaves less flexibility to develop your own autonomous car, and so it only makes sense that BMW has partnered with China’s largest search engine, Baidu, which today announced it ran a 3 Series over an 18.6-mile circuit at up to 62 mph, all without any driver input.

The route involved “mixed road conditions,” according to a company release, which said its car snaked from Baidu’s headquarters in Beijing to the capital’s Fifth Ring Road and Olympic Park and back toward the corporate headquarters. Baidu said the car changed lanes, made U-turns, passed other cars, slowed when cars braked ahead of it and merged into traffic.

The demo was meant to herald the strength of Baidu’s Institute of Deep Learning and what it calls its AutoBrain, which threads together 3D road data from sensors, maps and GPS with environmental “perception technology” that Baidu says allows the car to follow other vehicles with accuracy and determine their velocity. Pack all of that into a single box and you have the kind of artificial intelligence that Google is chasing as well.

A linchpin of Baidu’s plan is to be a major force in mapping, a key to autonomy that BMW has already invested in elsewhere with its stake in Here, the mapping company. BMW isn’t the only company teaming up with Baidu; the Chinese search giant also has a deal with Audi to develop driverless technology systems.

True, this doesn’t put any carmaker even close to Google, which already has logged well over a million miles in its self-driving prototypes. But that’s hardly the point. You cannot play in China without a Chinese partner; carmakers learned this even before there was a Google. And that hasn’t changed, whether you’re selling autonomous cars or search engines. With that in mind, BMW and Audi are making the smart play with Baidu in a hugely important growth market.

As for when you can buy a Baidu-equipped BMW or Audi that can chauffeur you around Beijing, that could be a while. Reuters reports that Baidu will introduce self-driving buses first, within three years.