Ford & Baidu Partner on Autonomous Vehicle Testing in Beijing

US auto giant Ford and Chinese technology company Baidu are partnering to test Level 4 autonomous vehicles on the streets of China’s capital city.

A team of Ford engineers at the company’s Nanjing Research and Engineering Center (REC) has equipped all test vehicles with Baidu’s Virtual Driver System (VDS) and related hardware.

On-road testing will begin by the end of this year.

The tests will be conducted on open roads in Beijing specially designated for AV trials, and a Ford release notes the tests could be expanded to other Chinese cities in the future.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) defines Level 4 autonomy as being capable of performing all driving tasks under certain conditions or in certain areas.

The two-year project deepens Ford and Baidu’s existing partnership: Ford is a founding member of the Apollo Committee, an advisory group for Baidu’s Apollo open autonomous driving platform.

“Working with a leading tech partner like Baidu allows us to leverage new opportunities in China to offer innovative solutions that improve safety, convenience and the overall mobility experience,” Sherif Marakby, president and CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, noted in a statement.

Ford and Baidu have also started to explore potential partnerships in areas of automotive connectivity, artificial intelligence and digital marketing of connected and autonomous cars.

China is a target of major investment by a growing number of international automakers, including BMW, Daimler and Tesla, and fast becoming a test ground for real-world AV driving trials.

Following extensive closed-course testing, Mercedes-Benz, one of Daimler’s best-known brands, recently secured permission to begin road tests in Beijing, and is working with local partners to adapt its advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) technologies to Beijing’s “unique” traffic environment.

Daimler archrival BMW is also accelerating investment in China with the opening of the Shanghai Research & Development Centre, comprising four departments focusing on future mobility trends and design, including a connected and automated driving lab.

Electric carmaker Tesla is reportedly planning to build a production plant in China that could deliver up to half a million cars annually.

Money is flowing into Chinese AV start-ups as well.

Earlier this month Momenta secured an investment package valued at more than $1Bn, securing the China-based firm’s status as a “unicorn” in the self-driving tech market.

Meanwhile, online shopping giant Alibaba announced two automotive initiatives in September to bring AV and extra connectivity to its home consumers.

As part of the December 2017 strategic cooperation deal between Alibaba and Ford, the carmaker confirmed that Ford Kuga SUV customers in China will be able to order the car, which has a 10.4-inch center screen and software powered by AliOS, later this year.

According to a July report from IT research firm Juniper, the US and China will be the key regions to watch as new policies and guidelines for autonomous vehicles flourish, with the two countries alone accounting for nearly two thirds of AVs sold worldwide next year.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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