- Chinese e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba has confirmed it is running road tests of autonomous vehicles (AVs), according to the South China Morning Post.
- Alibaba, the world’s largest and most valuable retailer, is looking to hire 50 more AV specialists for its research lab, and is running trials regularly. Its goal is Level 4 autonomy, which means cars can be autonomous in most conditions without the need for a human.
- It is competing with other Chinese giants Tencent and Baidu in the artificial intelligence (AI) space. This competition will likely push China to become the world’s biggest AV market, according to a new report by consultants McKinsey&Company.
The South China Morning Post reports Alibaba has been exploring AVs and AI since last year, a move that will help the company continue toward connected devices and managed city traffic. Earlier this year, Alibaba announced it would roll out its smart city platform in Malaysian capital city Kuala Lumpur, as it continues to expand into various part of the tech industry.
The MIT Technology Review notes this is not Alibaba’s first foray into the auto industry. Earlier this year, it invested in Xiaopeng Motors, a startup developing electric cars, and has partnered with Chinese carmaker SAIC to build internet-connected vehicles and infrastructure.
And the company appears to have big ambitions. In June 2016, it launched an AI-powered "city brain" system in home city Hangzhou to analyze mapping data and ease traffic flow. With Alibaba competing hard against Tencent and Baidu, collectively known as BAT, the future is bright for the AV market in China and could expand beyond that country’s shores.
Expansion beyond China should worry American companies dabbling in AV technology, which may find themselves stymied by safety concerns after the recent death of a woman run over by an AV in Tempe, AZ. The South China Morning Post reports 98% of Chinese polled in a recent survey favoring AVs, perhaps indicating they are less concerned about safety than their American peers. The onus will be on American companies to keep up the momentum with their research, lest they find themselves superseded by a rival from China.