Is Baidu CEO's driverless car test a crime?

Tech giant under police probe for car's use on public roads during video chat

BEIJING/SHANGHAI • Baidu, China's biggest search engine provider, is under investigation to determine whether it had broken any laws after its chief executive tested a driverless car on public roads, Beijing's traffic police said.

The firm, China's answer to Alphabet's Google, is taking a leading role in the development of self-driving cars in China and beyond. It unveiled a broad alliance for self-driving cars on Wednesday as it aims to get such vehicles on the road in China by 2019.

However, Baidu may now face sanctions from the local authorities after police said in a post on their official microblog on Thursday that they were investigating whether it is a crime to use a driverless car on public roads.

"The police support technology and innovation of autonomous driving, but it should be conducted legally, safely and scientifically," Beijing traffic police said.

Under current traffic law, no vehicle is allowed on Beijing's roads without a qualified driver operating it in a proper manner. Baidu said the person behind the steering wheel was monitoring the vehicle without touching it.

Baidu declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.

The company launched its autonomous car project in 2013, joining the race with Internet giants such as Google and Tesla Motors. The search engine giant said last year that it plans to mass-produce driverless cars in five years.

Under current traffic law, no vehicle is allowed on Beijing's roads without a qualified driver operating it in a proper manner. Baidu said the person behind the steering wheel was monitoring the vehicle without touching it.

China has been catching up in the race to develop self-driving cars, helped by supportive regulation and Beijing's desire to shift to an economy driven by high-tech and consumer sectors rather than heavy industry and low-end manufacturing.

Baidu CEO Robin Li conducted a live video chat with participants of the firm's artificial intelligence conference on Wednesday, where he was projected on a huge screen sitting in the passenger seat of a self-driving car while on Beijing roads.

The episode generated discussion online, with some questioning whether Baidu had permission to conduct the test, while others said the car appeared to violate traffic rules.

Others online hailed the test. "This ticket, if issued by police, will definitely be historic," wrote one.

REUTERS, XINHUA, CHINA DAILY/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'Is Baidu CEO's driverless car test a crime?'. Print Edition | Subscribe