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China's Baidu rolls out self-driving cars for public trial

There will still be a human operator onboard, but Baidu says these autonomous cars are Level 4.

Baidu Apollo self-driving car
2016 Ford Focus Titanium

The machines cometh, China. Baidu, which can be considered China's Google, said on Thursday that the first fleet of 45 self-driving cars are being released for public trial in the country. Specifically, they'll wander in Changsha, in the Hunan province.

The 45 cars come from a close partnership between Baidu and local automaker FAW Group. Officially called the Apollo Robotaxi but based on the L4 Hongqi EV, the self-driving car can operate at Level 4 autonomy levels, according to the company. On the SAE scale of autonomy, that's darn near close to full autonomy. With that designation, the car shouldn't have to hand controls back to a human driver if a problem occurs.

Nevertheless, a human operator will be onboard at all times, just in case. Baidu said the public is welcome to try out the self-driving cars in a ride-sharing service sort of operation. Right now, the cars will be geofenced in a particular area, and they'll be able to travel on about 31 miles of open road. Next year, Baidu plans to expand the map to include a total of 84 miles.

Toyota and Geely also signed up to work with Baidu earlier this year on self-driving technology in China.

Not only does the Apollo Robotaxi house the self-driving technology, but Baidu has worked to build out a vehicle-to-everything infrastructure, commonly known as V2X technology. Thus, the L4 Hongqi EV self-driving car can communicate with other vehicles and infrastructure as needed. The technology comes straight from the factory, as does the autonomous system, which is the first mass-production unit from FAW/Hongqi.

With the technology in mass production, both companies added that they've addressed concerns about the electrical and electronic architecture of the vehicle. Signal interference, for example, isn't an issue any longer.

Back in the US, numerous companies and automakers are working to be first in the self-driving car race. Waymo, General Motors, Uber and others all have self-driving car trials ongoing.

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