Chinese automakers want to bring assisted driving to as many people as possible
Jidu, Baidu’s electric car venture alongside Geely, unveiled its first concept car on June 8, 2022.
BEIJING — As Chinese companies vie for a share of the world’s biggest car market, they are betting heavily on assisted driving technology.
China sold nearly 21.5 million passenger cars last year. That’s roughly the equivalent of sales in the United States, Europe and Japan combined, according to industry data accessible via the Wind database.
Electric cars have captured a growing share of this Chinese market. Tesla, start-ups like Nio, and traditional automakers have jumped in. After initially competing on battery life and in-car online entertainment, companies are increasingly emphasizing assisted driving capability.
Chinese tech giant Baidu and automaker Geely are among those rushing to make a bet on making assisted driving a reality.
Just 15 months after launching the companies’ Jidu electric car project as part of a merger, the brand unveiled a concept car on Wednesday which it says is 90% of what customers will get next year for around $30,000. Tesla’s Model Y costs closer to $50,000 in China.
The evolution of “smart cars”
“It’s a car and, more so, a robot,” Jidu CEO Joe Xia said during the event, which was streamed live in Mandarin, translated by CNBC. “We use a concept car to quickly prove our design and idea at an early stage.”
The four-seater, called Robo-01, replaced the dashboard with a long screen stretching across the front of the car and removed the cockpit buttons – since the driver can use voice control instead , Xia said.
The half-moon of a steering wheel could theoretically fold up, clearing the way for a cockpit seat with no window obstructions, once self-driving is allowed on Chinese roads. Two large external sensors for assisted driving can retract, for aesthetics and for protection in an emergency.
Xia asserted that Jidu “can become the standard for self-driving cars.” But the company declined to share the level of driver assistance software that would come with the car.
Many electric cars, including Tesla, Nio and Xpeng, offer some form of technological driving assistance. In late May, Chinese self-driving technology start-up WeRide announced that it had received a strategic investment from German engineering firm Bosch to produce an assisted driving software system for mass production and delivery next year.
“I think the definition of smart cars has evolved a lot,” Xuan Liu, vice president of self-driving software startup DeepRoute.ai, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“Consumers consider two important factors in smart vehicles,” he said. “First of all, the most important thing is autonomous driving. I think they are also interested in this so-called smart cabinet, so they want the interaction with the vehicle system.”
Jidu plans to launch a limited version of its first production model in the fall. Deliveries are expected to begin next year, with a target market of family passenger vehicles priced above 200,000 yuan ($29,985), Baidu CEO Robin Li said in an earnings call. at the end of May.
Baidu owns the majority stake in Jidu, and the search giant has deployed commercial robotaxis in parts of China using its Apollo self-driving system. It’s the same system, with other technologies from Baidu, that will be used in the Jidu concept car (above).
Baidu owns the majority stake in Jidu, and the search giant has deployed commercial robotaxis in parts of China using its Apollo self-driving system. It is the same system, with other technologies from Baidu, which will be used in the concept car of Jidu.
Co-investor Geely did not make an official statement on the Jidu concept car, after increasing its capital backing earlier this year.
Geely has entered the electric car industry with its own vehicles and in November announced a multi-year plan to develop the software component of the cars. The automaker said it aims to commercialize full autonomous driving under specific conditions, called “level four” autonomous driving in a classification system, by 2025.
Earlier this month, Geely announced that its subsidiary had launched the first nine of 72 satellites to support mapping and autonomous driving.
Competition for customers
Although electric car sales have increased, interest in Jidu’s first concept car has appeared modest.
Around 50,000 people viewed one of the main feeds on the WeChat messaging app on Wednesday evening.
In contrast, Nio’s annual car release event in December drew around 200,000 views, even though it included a musical performance. This event showcased a new sedan and custom augmented reality glasses capable of imposing digital images on the real, physical world.
For companies focused on self-driving technology, they see a market at least a year or two into the future.
For Chinese consumers, the main appeal of self-driving cars is getting help during the commute to work after a long day at work, Liu said. As for the business side, it’s possible that falling software costs will accelerate widespread use, he said.
DeepRoute.ai announced in April that it had reduced the price of self-driving software from $10,000 per car to $3,000. Liu said the company was able to lower the price by using cheaper sensors but better software, and he expects the price could drop further once the startup is able to work with it. automakers for mass production and deployment starting in 2024.
While regulators have yet to allow fully self-driving cars on most roads en masse, companies like DeepRoute.ai, Baidu and others are creating data records through their robotaxi operations.
Liu said this data can help improve self-driving technology algorithms and build a balance sheet to support potential changes in regulations.