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Baidu will spin off self-driving car unit when mature: CEO
[BEIJING] Chinese internet search giant Baidu Inc intends to spin off its autonomous cars division when it's reached maturity and needs to attract more funding and partners, chief executive Robin Li said.
Baidu, which has joined global giants from Alphabet Inc to Uber Technologies Inc in researching self-driving, is aiming for mass production of autonomous vehicles by 2021. Despite some technology problems that need to be overcome, it remains on track to hit that target, Mr Li said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday.
Baidu is recasting itself as a technology company centred on artificial intelligence and next-generation technologies, with former Microsoft AI maven Qi Lu now at the helm. Its new direction comes as the search and online advertisement business faces pressure from smaller rivals such as Sogou as well as giants like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
It's also investing heavily in the autonomous car business, which it's consolidated into a single unit under Mr Lu's control.
"When we think business is promising enough and it has reached a stage that running it independently or introducing more strategic investors would make sense, we will do that," said Mr Li, who's attending an annual meeting of legislators in Beijing in his capacity as a member of an advisory body.
The company is likely to partner with traditional automakers rather than go it alone, Mr Li said. The search giant has not yet worked out a business plan for the technology and is first committed to actually getting robot cars on the road, he added.
"We will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal," he said. "Revenue and profits go next. We're not really after profits for this kind of thing." Baidu's annual revenue climbed at its slowest ever pace in 2016, due partly to government regulations that restricted the ad market. Attempts to expand into competitive new areas like food deliveries have burned cash while gaining limited traction. Now the company says changes to its advertiser base are largely complete, with 2017 seen as a year of renewal.
Building up its pool of customers is vital as Baidu attempts to create world-leading artificial intelligence services. AI systems learn faster when given more real-world material, such as photos and search terms submitted by users. The company is banking on new AI-driven products beyond autonomous cars, such as voice-controlled smart speakers and personal assistants, to grow profits and revenue.
The government gave its AI effort a leg-up in February when China's National Development and Reform Commission chose Baidu to lead efforts to create better systems for public and private sector use.