Baidu robotaxi concept and second-generation AI computer chip

Chinese search engine giant on Wednesday hosted its annual technology showcase in Beijing, where the company presented a self-driving taxi concept alongside a second-generation computer chip for artificial intelligence.

While we’ve seen many companies show off concepts for various types of self-driving cars over the years, there’s more significance here as has had a commercial self-driving taxi service running in parts of Beijing since May. According to the company, its Apollo-branded self-driving system has been used to provide more than 400,000 rides and cover more than 8.7 million miles.

During Wednesday’s presentation, CEO and co-founder Robin Li said the company is now ready for the next stage of self-driving car deployment—and that’s shifting from technical verification to large-scale commercial operation. In line with the shift, the company has launched the Luobo Kuaipao app for its self-driving taxi service.

“We believe that cars of the future will be robocars,” Li said in a statement. “They will drive autonomously, act as both an intelligent assistant and loyal companion, and be self-learning.”

Baidu self-driving car concept

Baidu’s taxi concept, which features gullwing doors and a transparent roof, is completely devoid of a steering wheel and pedals. Instead, there’s a curved display and control pad to enter destination details, with the vehicle also able to interact via voice activation and facial recognition. An AI system can provide predictive suggestions based on a user’s profile and current location.

In January, Baidu said it plans to establish a new company to launch electric vehicles leveraging its own AI, connectivity, mapping and self-driving technologies. The new company will be a subsidiary of Baidu, with Chinese automaker Geely serving as a strategic investor. It’s possible the new company will be the source for Baidu’s future taxis.

Baidu is also looking to connect infrastructure such as traffic control systems, highways and parking into its intelligent transport ecosystem. The company is currently testing connected infrastructure in the city of Baoding, in China’s Hebei Province. According to the company, it has reduced wait times at traffic lights by about 20% by optimizing the operation of the traffic lights.

Baidu’s second major announcement during Wednesday’s presentation was Kunlun 2, a second-generation computer chip powerful enough to handle all of the speedy data processing required for self-driving cars. Like the similar D1 chip from Tesla announced on Thursday, Kunlun 2 features a 7-nanometer manufacturing process and claimed to be 2-3 times more powerful than current chips used in self-driving cars. Baidu is already manufacturing the Kunlun 2.

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