Alibaba enters the Chinese self-driving car race – but who are its rivals?

18 Apr 2018

Beijing, where Tencent has been trialling its autonomous car technology. Image: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

China’s Alibaba confirms it is testing autonomous vehicle technology, but it is not without competition.

China is becoming a hotbed of self-driving testing of late and e-commerce giant Alibaba is the latest to join the club, according to the South China Morning Post.

No shortage of competition

Its rivals, Baidu and Tencent, have been conducting tests for some time. The former was identified as the national champion of China’s self-driving car efforts by the country’s ministry of science and technology.

The general goal for these companies is to achieve Level 4 capability, meaning their cars can self-drive in most conditions without the need for any human intervention.

Alibaba is understood to have capabilities for open road trials and is also running road tests of autonomous cars on a regular basis.

The company’s foray into self-driving technology dates back to March 2017, when a specialist in computer vision and autonomous driving, Wang Gang, was recruited as chief scientist of Alibaba AI Labs, leading the project.

The firm is seeking to hire more than 50 engineers to boost its self-driving development team.

Alibaba has formed a partnership with SAIC Motor, China’s biggest auto manufacturer, to launch connected cars powered by the AliOS in-car operating system. It will also be launching another cooperative venture with Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën Automobile Company some time in 2018.

Tencent oversees trials in Beijing

Tencent has six automobile companies behind it, including Geely, BYD and FAW Group. Baidu has more than a dozen partnerships, as it entered the autonomous car sphere much earlier than its rivals.

Baidu will also be producing China’s first fully autonomous bus with King Long United Automotive Industry, a Chinese bus maker. Its self-driving system, Apollo, has been in development since 2015 and it hopes to mass-produce cars running on the system by 2019.

According to McKinsey research, 98pc of Chinese interviewees from a recent survey showed a preference for autonomous driving and were also more willing to pay a higher premium for such technology than those in other countries.

Self-driving tests in China will become much easier for all of the companies in question, as the country’s ministry of transport said all provincial and city governments will have the authority to allow road testing of autonomous vehicles in their various jurisdictions from May this year.

Quartz noted that companies applying for these permissions should have already tested their vehicles in closed areas, and test drivers must have at least three years of experience.

While all three giants have different advantages and disadvantages, it seems like no single firm will emerge as the victor, according to Christopher Thomas of McKinsey. “No one company will have all the pieces to deliver the solution.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects