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This Huawei phone is smart enough to drive a Porsche

Huawei revs up a phone-powered self-driving car to demonstrate the artificial intelligence prowess of its Mate 10 Pro phone.

Porsche Panamera decked out in Huawei gear.

At MWC 2018, Huawei tricked out a Porsche Panamera to show off the driving skills of its Mate 10 Pro phone.

Roger Cheng/CNET

I'm strapped into the shotgun seat of a Porsche Panamera, parked in a lot just outside FC Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium. My chauffeur for the afternoon: Huawei's Mate 10 Pro smartphone.

You read that right. A phone will be driving this car.

No, Huawei isn't getting into the autonomous car business. The Chinese telecom giant set up this experiment to show off the processing prowess of the flagship phone's Kirin 970 chip, which features an artificial intelligence engine.

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"This is purely a showcase of what the phone today is capable of," said Arne Herkelmann, European head of handset portfolio and planning for Huawei.

Alongside buzzwords like 5G and augmented reality, AI stands as one of the key themes for the Mobile World Congress trade show here. The mobile industry has taken its cue from the success of digital assistants like Amazon's Alexa and is touting smarter networks and devices.

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There's no one in the driver's seat. The phone mounted to the windshield is the only one controlling this car. 

Richard Peterson/CNET

For instance, LG unveiled a revamped flagship called the LG V30S, which added extra memory and AI capabilities. Nokia talked about the role of AI in all the traffic flowing through faster 5G networks. Verizon Chief Technology Officer Hans Vestberg said in an interview that he sees AI -- the power behind computer programs that can learn and adapt on their own -- being useful for detecting and automatically repairing problems with the network.

In November, Huawei unveiled the Mate 10 Pro and the vaunted AI engine in the Kirin 970. The company began selling the phone in the US in February, although without a carrier partner. 

Herkelmann said that since the launch, he'd been inundated with questions about how exactly its AI works. MWC 2018 presented a chance to show off those capabilities. 

Enter the road reader challenge. The company wanted to see if the phone was smart enough to recognize objects like a dog, a soccer ball or a person on a bicycle and tell the car to maneuver away. (Don't worry. The company used cardboard stand-ins.) The engine was fed more than 1 million images and can recognize 1,000 objects.

Autonomous driving, DIY style

Huawei spent five weeks putting this project together -- and you could kind of tell.

There was no polished self-driving car that you would find from Alphabet's Waymo unit or Uber's autonomous fleet. Missing were any sophisticated radars and depth sensors.

Huawei chose the Panamera because it wasn't already a self-driving car. The company's engineers mounted a high-speed camera on the roof, which provided a constant video feed to the phone of everything in front of the car. They also rigged up simple robots to help control the gas, brake and steering wheel.

A developer called Kerve created an app with a simple user interface, allowing you to tap a button on the phone to get the car going.

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The Huawei Mate 10 Pro uses its artificial intelligence engine to detect objects in front of it. 

Richard Peterson/CNET

I had come into this thinking that the car would go along a curvy track. But instead it was set to accelerate down a simple straight path for roughly 100 feet. Considering how slowly we were going, it almost felt like a waste of a good Porsche.

Herkelmann said Huawei could have taught the phone to drive the car around corners or on different roads, but it would have take more time and space than the company had.

What was it like?

I had a chance to ride through the course twice. The first time was a practice run, in which the car moved at 5 miles per hour. Employees at the other end rushed to the road with cardboard obstacles at random times and locations, and you could see through the app on the Mate 10 Pro that it was able to determine whether the object was a soccer ball or a dog.

Once the car got a few feet away from a dog, it abruptly stopped.

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The car swerves out of the way of a man and a bicycle (in cardboard form). 

Richard Peterson/CNET

Before beginning the next run, you choose how you'd like to avoid specific objects (swerve to the right, turn to the left or brake).

Fortunately, the second time offered a little more pop. The Panamera jumped to about 30 mph, and when it got close to a man and a bicycle, swerved to the right.

While the experience lacked in thrills, Huawei had made its point. The drive to build autonomous vehicles has chipmakers like Qualcomm and Nvidia offering dedicated processors for the auto industry. Huawei jury-rigged this in a few weeks with an off-the-shelf phone.

That alone is impressive, even if I'll stick to reading emails and posting to Instagram on my phone, and keeping my hands on the steering wheel when I'm in my car. 

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