Baidu USA, an offshoot of the massive Chinese Baidu search engine company, announced on Aug. 31, 2016, that the California DMV has granted it an Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit. Four months previously, in late April 2016, after establishing a presence in Silicon Valley, Baidu had revealed its intention to assemble a team of 100 or more engineers for an Autonomous Driving Unit. The long-sought approval opens the door for implementation of its plans to test self-driving cars on the California public road system.
To further its self-driving car project, Baidu recently partnered with Ford, investing $150 million into Velodyne, a company that specializes in autonomous driving system technology. Among other components for self-driving vehicles, Velodyne creates LiDAR (Light, Detection and Ranging) sensors, which offer a range of driver help in four levels from basic assistance to full autonomy. The company first became involved with LiDAR technology in 2005, when it transitioned from producing premium audio equipment to developing components for autonomous vehicles. It is now a market leader in the field. Currently, LiDAR components are scarce and expensive. The development of a sufficient supply of high-quality, affordable sensors is imperative in creating an eventual viable market for self-driving vehicles.
Baidu SVP Jing Wang issued a statement that the company intends to "start testing...autonomous driving technologies on public roads very soon in California." Although Baidu did not detail the current status of its undertaking to recruit test engineers, it's safe to say that official California state approval of its testing plans is a step in the right direction. Its California self-driving vehicle initiative complements Baidu's efforts in China, where it has been researching self-driving cars for years and already tests autonomous vehicles on the road. Its plans in the United States to pursue the innovative market of self-driving vehicles coincide with those of Ford, GM, Google and other American companies.
A lack of regulations has hindered the testing of self-driving vehicles in the United States, and California is the first state to address this concern with specific rules and guidelines. One of the restrictions Baidu and other companies face when testing autonomous vehicles in California is the need for a driver and full driving controls in all vehicles that test self-driving components. Another major impediment to autonomous vehicles has been the price of the technology, and Baidu hopes to address this with its investment in Velodyne. The other variable in the widespread marketing of self-driving technology is the matter of consumer trust, which shows signs of increasing. Its considerable investments in autonomous driving systems indicates that Baidu is confident that once it develops and tests affordable technology on a widespread scale, consumers will realize the efficacy and ease of traveling in autonomous vehicles and embrace the new technology.