Baidu announced Friday the reshuffling of its intelligent driving business, including the establishment of a V2X (Vehicle-to-Everything) department. The government is backing V2X to make China a world leader in driverless tech.

Why it matters: The announcement is the Beijing-based search giant’s latest move to kick-start the business amid serious challenges from emerging domestic rivals targetting the full-scale deployment of robotaxi pilot services.

  • Baidu began looking for local volunteers to test its Level 4 driverless vehicles as part of its robotaxi pilot launch in the central city of Changsha in late September, though no further details have been given since.
  • A former Baidu employee told TechNode that the company has been “rethinking its self-driving business.” He cited the less mature example of Apolong, an autonomous minibus project launched with bus maker King Long in late 2017. The vehicles ran up costs of up to RMB 3 million ($430,000) per unit.
  • The source added that Baidu has been slowing its robotaxi push as the technology is still considered immature. This was later denied by the company.

Details: Baidu is expanding its presence in the mobility sector beyond self-driving cars by turning the V2X team into a standalone department to accelerate China’s push for smart mobility transportation, according to a statement on Friday.

  • The newly formed intelligent transportation unit will develop V2X solutions, a 5G-based technology that allows vehicles, roadside infrastructure, and other road users to interact. 
  • The firm has inked agreements with more than 10 municipal governments, including Changsha and the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, for smart transport deployment, a spokeswoman said on Monday 
  • A Baidu-enabled signal control system has helped reduce traffic jams by 20 to 30% in the northern city of Baoding, the company claimed earlier last month. Optimizing signal timings is a key aspect of V2X.
  • More importantly, the Chinese search engine giant is integrating its so-called intelligent vehicle team, mainly focused on L3 automation, with another unit that works on L4 highly-autonomous solutions.
  • Rumors over the future of its L3 business had circulated months before, with several key personnel leaving the company, Jiemian News reported. 
  • Li Zhenyu, general manager at Baidu Intelligent Driving Group (IDG) confirmed to Chinese media in July that most automakers have pulled back on plans to mass-produce L3 vehicles.
  • The deployment of automated intermediary systems has long been controversial in the industry as top scientists and companies have continuously voiced safety concerns about handing control over to machines.

Context: Baidu last carried out major restructuring of its autonomous driving business with the establishment of three IDG units—L4, L3, and vehicle connectivity—in March 2017, then led by Baidu COO Lu Qi.

  • This was followed by the release of the company’s open-sourced autonomous vehicle technology platform Apollo a month later.
  • The search engine giant claimed its fleet of 300 self-driving cars has racked up more than 2 million kilometers of testing in 13 cities as of July this year, far exceeding its domestic fellows.

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric vehicles. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com More by Jill Shen

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