Didi sets up independent autonomous driving unit as it follows Google’s example, betting on driverless future


Established in 2016, the ride-hailing giant’s autonomous driving team has grown to over 200 staff, all of whom are based in China and the US. — Reuters

Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing platform, has set up an independent autonomous driving unit, as the Beijing-based company steps up efforts to be part of China’s push for a driverless future.

Zhang Bo, Didi’s chief technology officer, will head the independent venture, while tech investor and former executive director of Shunwei Capital Meng Xing will join as chief operating officer, the company announced in a statement on Monday.

The restructuring follows a similar step by Google, which in 2016 spun off its six-year-old self-driving project into a stand-alone company, Waymo. The move is intended to bring more flexibility to operations and employees amid a race to develop and master technologies essential to future mobility.

Autonomous driving technology is expected to be “fully integrated” within Didi’s services in time, said Cheng Wei, Didi’s chief executive, in the statement, adding that the future solutions would involve a “seamless combination” of autonomous driving and human services.

Established in 2016, the ride-hailing giant’s autonomous driving team has grown to over 200 staff, all of whom are based in China and the US. Many of them are engaged in research into connected car areas such as high-definition mapping, perception, behaviour prediction, control and simulation among others.

“The new company looks forward to further strategic collaboration with carmakers and industry partners to promote the application of self-driving technologies in people’s everyday lives,” said Zhang Bo.

China has seen a crop of self-driving startups over the past few years, as the country aims global for leadership in the field along with other advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, next generation 5G networks and renewable energy.

The promise of a driverless future has also attracted interest from some of the country’s biggest Internet giants including Baidu, Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding, parent company of the South China Morning Post. Baidu was hand-picked by the Chinese government to spearhead research in autonomous driving in 2017.

The country wants smart vehicles to account for half of all new cars sold at home by 2020, according to a road map from the country’s top economic planner. By 2025, the country expects a fully-formed ecosystem around smart vehicles and highly automated cars to take up 15% of sales.

Still, Chinese autonomous driving players still have some way to go in catching up with US peers, according to statistics in an annual report by the California Department of Motor Vehicle in February.

Waymo was the pack leader with an average disengagement from the auto function once every 11,000 miles of driving over a 12-month period through November last year. By contrast, Pony.ai, the front-runner among Chinese companies, reported human intervention once every 1,022 miles. – South China Morning Post


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