Baidu CEO says smart-city tech will let Chinese drivers use their cars every day

By Elles Houweling

The CEO of Baidu, China’s dominant search engine, said that smart vehicles and smart cities would solve congestion and pollution issues in the country’s largest cities. He predicted that within five to ten years China’s top-tier metropolises would no longer face the license plate restrictions implemented by the government to curb traffic-related problems in the country.

In a letter titled “Riding smart cars, walking smart roads”, published on Saturday, Baidu CEO Robin Li stated that intelligent transportation systems would increase traffic efficiency by 15% to 30% within the next five years, which would effectively “solve congestion problems.”

He pointed out that, following the latest national census, China now counts 18 cities with over 10 million inhabitants. Tier-one cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Chengdu all have populations of more than 20 million people.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, the number of newly registered vehicles increased by 67.3% in the first quarter of 2021. As of March 2021, car ownership in China reached 287 million.

Given this trajectory, “we need to find optimal solutions for traffic safety, traffic congestion, carbon emissions and other issues to ensure that travelling becomes safer, more efficient, more economical and greener for everyone,” Li urged.

According to the Baidu CEO, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and smart cities would improve traffic efficiency, save energy and reduce air pollution, for example, by expanding Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communication. Experts, however, point out that the reality of the matter is far more complicated.

“While widespread adoption of electric vehicles will go some way to solving pollution issues in large cities, it’s doubtful that completely integrated smart cities and connected vehicles will solve the congestion problem overnight,” explains Calum Macrae, head of automotive R&A at GlobalData. “V2I communication will be part of the toolkit for city planners, but we know that mobility demand in cities is extremely lumpy and solving the problem of rush hours isn’t likely to rest solely at the door of connectivity and the latency of data interpretation.”

Li also argued in his letter that smart transportation systems do not rely on the popularisation of autonomous driving technology. “On the contrary, it has to operate in situations where pedestrians, manned vehicles, unmanned vehicles and other objects on the road are mixed and move together simultaneously,” he wrote.

“An intelligent transportation system requires an exclusive operator. The operator’s responsibility is to continuously optimise the system and continuously improve the efficiency and reliability of traffic. This is like telecommunications operators optimising the efficiency of mobile phone communication by constantly upgrading their networks,” Li added in his letter.

Baidu has in recent years made an aggressive push into the automotive market. In cooperation with China’s state-owned carmaker, BAIC Group, Baidu announced earlier this year that it had plans to roll out a fleet of 1,000 fully autonomous vehicles over the next three years.

In June, the search giant joined forces with carmaker Geely, establishing the Jidu Automobile joint venture. The cooperation is meant to combine Baidu’s AV technology with Geely’s Sustainable Experience Architecture platform for electric vehicles.

The company has also been testing its Apollo Moon project in a number of China’s largest cities, including Shanghai and Shenzhen. In Beijing, it began charging passengers for rides in its driverless taxis around Shougang Park, one of the sites for the 2021 Winter Olympics.

China’s license plate restrictions

Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government has introduced a series of regulations to reduce traffic congestions and pollution. The municipality of Beijing enforces a road space rationing system which stipulates that, depending on the last number on one’s license plate, the car is prohibited from driving one day a week.

Additionally, most tier-one and tier-two cities implement strict quotas on license plate applications, making it notoriously difficult for citizens in large cities to register their vehicles.

In 2011, the government of Beijing introduced a bi-monthly lottery system for license plates to ease the pressure. Last year, it announced that more slots and shorter waiting times would be made available for electric vehicles.

Li predicts that within five to ten years, these license plate restrictions will become obsolete. “In the future, China’s first-tier cities may no longer need purchase restrictions and traffic restrictions,” he wrote.

Experts, however, point out that a ten-year deadline may be too difficult to realise.

“Smart cities, connected cars, and electric vehicles are all areas that are seeing progress but at different rates. I think the prediction of five to ten years is ambitious for many large cities as there are a number of limitations such as the development of long life and cost-effective batteries, the need for a smart charging network as well as cybersecurity concerns, to name a few,” Francesca Gregory, associate analyst at GlobalData, points out.

Similarly, GlobalData analyst Rory Gopsill said that “total elimination of congestion and pollution in the next ten years in smart cities is extremely unlikely. Reducing them past chronic or dangerous levels may prove technologically and economically feasible but only for a few advanced cities.”

Verdict has previously pointed out that fully autonomous vehicles will not become widely available anytime soon. Accordingly, Gopsill added:

“Autonomous vehicles are still by and large not ready for widespread deployment and I doubt we’ll see them making up a significant portion of urban traffic within ten years.”