Weekly Brief: Baidu locks horns with Google in autonomous race

Chinese search giant Baidu, long suspected of joining rival Google in the self-driving car race, told The Wall Street Journal that it has created a new business unit specifically focused on building autonomous cars. The company isn’t limping into the game either. It already has several test vehicles in the field near Beijing — BMWs harnessing Baidu technology — and wants a public self-driving shuttle operational within three years. The company has designs on a consumer car, too, but is yet to slap a timeline on it.

In other news, Ford is feeling bullish on electric cars — to the tune of $4.5Bn (£2.97Bn). That’s how much the carmaker has pledged with the goal of building 13 new electric vehicles (EVs) by 2020. Included in this 13 will be a revamped Ford Focus Electric with a 100-mile range and faster charge time (80% in 30 minutes). Details on the other dozen remain scant but Ford promises that 40% of its nameplates globally will be electrified by the end of the decade. It plans to expand EV offerings to growing markets, including Taiwan, Korea and China, and has set aside $2.1M for a new battery lab at the University of Michigan.

Back with autonomous tech, Daimler, Audi and BMW completed their acquisition of HERE last week for €2.8Bn (£2.02). At a press conference crowning the moment, the consortium announced that this wasn’t a philanthropic endeavour just to keep HERE out of the hands of rival Google; they want to run a profitable company. HERE sales are trending up in 2015 about 20% from 2014 and the German consortium says its plans to spend more than €500M in R&D this coming year to keep the momentum rolling. The focus will be on urban mobility, smart transportation and (ding, ding, ding) self-driving cars.

The US Department of Transportation rolled out the Smart City Challenge, which will award up to $40M to one American city to become a crown jewel of urban mobility. Cities across the country, in collaboration with the private sector and universities, will compete to win this funding based on the strength of their data-driven visions for the deployment of innovative technologies in their communities. This includes connected vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, smart sensors, and self-driving cars. 

“Old dog” Aston Martin, in the words of its CEO, has teamed up with Chinese internet start-up Letv to bring the UK carmaker into the connected-car era. Letv will design a touch-screen infotainment system for the new Aston Martin Rapide S and a whole connected car platform for the carmaker’s first electric vehicle, the RapidE, which the media has chalked up as the first legitimate e-luxury rival to the Tesla Model S. Debut date is set for 2017.

Ridesharing may be a cutthroat game these days but four competitors have joined forces in hopes of slowing down the most aggressive of all: Uber. Lyft from the US, Didi Kuaidi of China, GrabTaxi of Southeast Asia and Ola of India have inked a deal to share each other's technology, local market knowledge and business resources. International travellers can seamlessly access local on-demand rides by using the same application they use at home. So Lyft, for example, will work in China via Didi Kuaidi, just as GrabTaxi will work in India via Ola. Pretty clever.

Real-time traffic alerts? Old School. Turn-by-turn directions? Everyone has it. The new thing? Holographic navigation. That’s right, Swiss start-up WayRay has rolled out the WayRay Navion, an augmented reality navigation system that projects holographic GPS imagery and driver notifications onto the windshield of a car (video demo here). WayRay is focusing on the fleet front for now and offers a separate telematics device, the WayRay Element, which can be plugged into the diagnostics port of any automobile for monitoring driver performance, safety and fuel efficiency. Orange Business Services will provide the connectivity.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU analysis with information from industry press releases.

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