It has been slightly over two months since Didi’s autonomous driving division was spun off into an independent entity in an attempt to stimulate the company’s efforts in R&D and product application. It has been mostly smooth sailing ever since. The move was likely inspired by a similar maneuver from Uber that was forced by investors to separate from its money-burning self-driving unit Advanced Technologies Group prior to its IPO.
On September 16, Didi confirmed to 36Kr that Wei Junqing, Vice President of Engineering of Aptive Mobility Group, will join the newly-formed company as its CTO, reporting directly to the CEO Zhang Bo, who also serves as the CTO of the mother company.
Furthermore, on the same day, during the World Intelligent Connected Vehicles Conference, it was announced that Didi Chuxing became one of three companies – alongside SAIC Motor, one of the largest Chinese car manufacturers, and BMW – to receive the first batch of connected automated vehicle application demonstration licenses from the Shanghai government.
The new license no longer limits companies to purely testing, and will allow Didi’s manned vehicles fitted with autonomous driving capabilities to roam Shanghai’s roads and pick up passengers. Shanghai is the first Chinese city to issue this type of license for enterprises.
Several weeks ago, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference, Didi CEO Cheng Wei already announced that the company was planning to expedite the manned autopilot tests with ordinary users in Shanghai. Zhang Bo also weighed in on the issue, adding that Didi was hoping to open the autopilot manned testing in Jiading, Shanghai as soon as possible, expecting the number of test vehicles to reach 30, and the average distance for trips to exceed 10 km.
Didi’s autonomous driving division was established in 2016 and has since attracted talent from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Uber, Waymo and other companies to boost its R&D efforts. In 2018, Didi started conducting road tests and research in China and the United States, where it has an R&D center in Mountain View, CA. However, the Chinese ride-hailing giant still lags behind other companies like Uber, being merely the 53rd company to be allowed to test connected automated vehicles in California last year.
In China the situation is not a whole lot better. Didi is still trailing far behind Baidu, whose autonomous fleet drove nearly 140,000 km in Beijing, accounting for 91% of all road tests in 2018. Baidu’s autonomous driving unit, Apollo, also boasts an impressive list of partners from Ford and Volkswagen to ZTO and Microsoft. Didi’s only publicly known partner in the field to date is BYD (the real list might be longer since little is known about Didi’s new venture, including its name).