Baidu founder envisions spin-off of driverless car unit

BEIJING • Baidu's billionaire founder has shed more light on the Chinese search giant's plans to sell robot cars around the world, revealing his intention to spin off its driverless car division once it reaches maturity to attract funding and partners.

Baidu is among Chinese corporations that have joined a race with Alphabet and Uber Technologies to develop autonomous driving, aiming for mass car production by 2021.

The company remains on track to hit that target despite some technology kinks that needed to be worked out, said chief executive Robin Li in an interview yesterday.

Mr Li, China's sixth-richest man, is steering his company towards research in artificial intelligence and next-generation technologies.

He has tasked former Microsoft executive Qi Lu to delve into new areas as Baidu's search and online advertising business comes under pressure from rivals such as Alibaba Group and Sogou. One promising field is autonomous cars, now consolidated into a separate unit helmed by Mr Lu.

Baidu has said it will get autonomous vehicles into service by 2018. The company is likely to partner traditional automakers in future rather than go it alone.

"When we think the business is promising enough and it has reached a stage where running it independently or introducing more strategic investors would make sense, we will do that," said Mr Li, who is attending an annual meeting of legislators in Beijing in his capacity as a member of an advisory body.

Like Google, Baidu believes that its search and mapping data grants it advantages in artificial intelligence that can be used to develop driverless technology. It formed a self-driving car team in Silicon Valley in April last year that employs more than 100 researchers and engineers, partnered chipmaker Nvidia Corp, and has been testing its autonomous vehicles in China and California.

Baidu has said it will get autonomous vehicles into service by 2018. The company is likely to partner traditional automakers in future rather than go it alone, Mr Li said.

He added that the search giant has not worked out a business plan for the technology because it is first committed to actually getting robot cars on the road.

"We will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal," he said. "Revenue and profits go next. We're not really after profits for this kind of thing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2017, with the headline 'Baidu founder envisions spin-off of driverless car unit'. Print Edition | Subscribe