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Self-driving car project reaches test milestone, Baidu says

China's national flag and Baidu Inc.'s corporate flag fly outside Baidu's headquarters in Beijing, China.

[SAN FRANCISCO] Baidu's autonomous car ambitions keep revving along, with the Chinese search engine announcing Wednesday that a prototype vehicle has completed tests on a route with varied roads and environmental conditions.

A modified BMW 3 Series car successfully negotiated a 30-kilometer test drive around Beijing, which included complex driving actions such as U-turns, left turns, changing lanes, and merging into traffic from on-ramps. The route included highways with the car's speed peaking at 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), during the tests, the Beijing-based company said in a statement.

Baidu is racing rivals like Google and traditional automakers to develop self-driving vehicles. The company may introduce an autonomous car this year, chief executive officer Robin Li said in March. Elon Musk's Tesla Motors Inc. in October rolled out some self-driving features to its Model S cars.

Baidu hopes to develop vehicles that are "fully autonomous over a limited number of routes," Andrew Ng, the company's chief scientist, said in an interview. "If we can have a relatively controlled environment I think we're in striking distance of putting cars on the road." The company's cars use a self-developed software package named "Baidu AutoBrain," which incorporates technologies for driving, observing the environment and making decisions. All that intelligence doesn't come cheap: One of the potential challenges for self-driving cars is the infrastructure required to make them intelligent, he said.

Today, the cars have "a small server" in their trunk that comes with a graphical processing unit - a type of semiconductor adept at processing AI workloads. That draws quite a bit of electricity and means it is currently challenging to pair AI with electric cars. In the long term "it doesn't feel like a big issue," he said.