When we think of autonomous cars, we tend to think of Google. Though other companies have developed self-driving technologies -- Audi and Tesla among them -- Google has turned heads because (a) it's a newbie in the auto market, (b) it has a wealth of tech resources at its fingertips, including Google Maps for navigation, and (c) it has very, very, very deep pockets.
But several thousand miles to the west of Google's Mountain View, California home, Google's Chinese rival, Baidu, is also working on autonomous vehicles. Like Google, Baidu can draw on lots of tech expertise, and now, it's partnered with an automaker to handle building its self-driving cars: BMW.
The questions are:
- What will these cars look like?
- Who will bring them to market first?
- If this is a race -- and we're not sure it is -- does it matter who wins?
As for what the cars might look like, that's still anyone's guess. However, with BMW as a partner in the endeavor, we doubt they'll look anything like Google's current designs, which remind some folks a wireless mouse with the face of a koala, wearing a fez. In other words: TBD.
Regarding the speed at which Baidu and Google are bringing their vehicles to market, Google has a clear head start. It's been testing prototypes on roadways for about six years, and it's clearly learned plenty in that time. Baidu and BMW aren't even expected to have a working prototype until later this year.
However, the late-comers have two significant advantages:
1. They're developing their autonomous vehicle for China, which boasts a far more centralized government. Once Baidu and BMW's cars are ready for action, it will be fairly easy for Beijing to authorize their use nationwide.
In the U.S., however, where road rules are made and enforced by federal, state, county, and municipal governments, updating the law books to accommodate autonomous cars will be a long and arduous process. America is also a very litigious country, and given the potential lawsuits that might be filed against automakers, software engineers, and drivers when autonomous cars are involved in accidents, the transition to self-drivers is likely to go even slower.
2. For now, Baidu and BMW aren't developing fully autonomous vehicles, but vehicles that help make the driving process easier. (Think of them like cars with a full suite of safety features like automated braking, collision avoidance, and lane keeping technology.) So, if Baidu and BMW do experience reluctance from government officials worried about green-lighting their vehicles, that will weigh in their favor, because they're not upending driving as we know it. Google, on the other hand, aims to eliminate the need for drivers altogether. That's a radical idea and a far harder sell.
And lastly, as for whether it matters who wins the race, the jury is out. If one team's car is significantly delayed, then yes, it could take a while for its cars to gain traction with consumers. But at the moment, the competition seem fairly even.
So, even if the two vehicles don't hit the roads at exactly the same time, as long as they're close, the contest for dominance should be interesting. Remember, the Honda Insight hybrid technically beat the Toyota Prius to market in 1999, and look which one is no longer here.