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06 July 2017

Baidu CEO busted for taking a self-driving car for a keynote stunt

A car equipped with Baidu's mapping tech is shown off at the 2016 Auto China show.
A car equipped with Baidu’s mapping tech is shown off at the 2016 Auto China show.

Image: Ng Han Guan/AP/REX/Shutterstock

A tech exec making a splashy entrance at a keynote is nothing new—but they usually don’t break the law in the process. 

Baidu CEO Robin Li took a ride to the company’s Create AI developers conference in a car tricked out with self-driving tech, all while beaming live footage of the journey to the keynote stage. 

The problem? In China, where the event took place, self-driving cars aren’t allowed on public roads. 

There were clearly no human hands guiding the way as the car zipped around, the steering wheel adjusting on its own. Another camera captured the vehicle’s movements on the busy roads on a separate screen, charting its progress as it shifted from lane to lane.   

You can check out the video shown onstage of Li in the self-driving car via Shanghaiist. Baidu, for its part, triumphantly tweeted out photos of the keynote stage during the demo.  

It was a cool showing for the company, which has developed its own autonomous platform to compete with Western auto behemoths and tech titans (more on that in a bit). But Li and Baidu were in flagrant violation of the self-driving car ban, even with Gu Weihao, GM of Baidu’s Intelligent Vehicle Division, reportedly in the driver’s seat.

Following the event, Beijing’s Traffic Management Bureau acknowledged that it was looking into the joyride, according to CNN Money

The road authority issued a statement declaring that Baidu would be, “investigated and dealt with according to the law,” maintaining the government’s earlier stance that it’s not yet prepared for self-driving tests on public roads until the proper protocols are put into place. 

The whole snafu immediately brings to mind Uber’s conflict with the California DMV. The company’s self-driving car experiment was booted from the state after it was introduced to San Francisco without being registered through the proper channels, and only returned after the company met the state’s standards.  

Baidu isn’t quite on Uber’s level here; the company showed off one short demo ride with high-level employees in the car, a far cry from rolling out an entire self-driving pilot program onto a city’s streets without the proper clearance. 

But the basic breach of public trust is inherently the same. The tech hasn’t been approved by the country’s governing body, and no one on the road had any idea that the tech was in use during the ride.  

Baidu’s reps had no comment on the incident when reached via email. 

Baidu’s open self-driving mission

The company has been working on an autonomous platform since at least 2015, and not without controversy before Li’s adventure; he boasted last year of a stunt where the company’s engineers jumped in front of its cars to show off the tech’s autobraking capabilities. 

Li’s illicit arrival wasn’t the only self-driving highlight from this year’s conference, however. Baidu tweeted out a quick video of a pair of cars that were reportedly converted by a partner to have autonomous capabilities using the Baidu’s self-driving platform.   

But Baidu has been much more transparent than many of its competitors. The company opened up its self-driving platform to others via the Apollo program, which boasts giant industry partners like Ford, Bosch, Daimler, and Nvidia along with smaller Asian companies, in an effort to crack the software behind autonomy. 

It’s a marked difference from how most Western companies are handling their projects. Just look at Uber again — the San Francisco dispute was caused largely because of the company’s refusal to share its secrets, and it’s currently in the midst of a massive lawsuit with Google-owned Waymo over its self-driving technology. 

Baidu’s top brass, meanwhile, has called its platform “the Android of the autonomous driving industry, but more open and powerful.” That attitude could really benefit the industry as a whole—so Baidu should do its best to keep its program running smoothly. 

If the Google of China behaves less like Uber and more like, well, Google, it very well could become a global leader when it comes to self-driving cars.  

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