Chinese company joins race to steer self-driving cars

China’s e-commerce giant, Alibaba, is steering resources towards driverless car technology, its chief executive Jack Ma confirmed on Thursday, joining a global race to shape the future of driving.

Despite fresh safety fears after a woman was hit and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle in the United States last month, many tech giants such as Google as well as carmakers are accelerating plans in an industry that attracts billions of dollars. The competition is heating up in China, the world’s largest car market, with internet firm and Alibaba rival Baidu recently predicting that self-driving vehicles will hit the road in the country within three to five years.

Baidu and Chinese tech giant Tencent are pursuing the technology, stirring speculation about Alibaba’s plans.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on driverless things,” Ma told reporters on Thursday while on a business trip to Bangkok. He was speaking after signing agreements with the Thai government, including a more than $300-million investment in a digital hub in eastern Thailand.

“What we want to do is [figure out] how we can make the cars more automatic, more friendly, more like a partner of human beings rather than just a driving tool,” he said.

“I believe our children will only work four hours a day and four days a week, or maybe three days a week, but they still will tell us they are very busy. Why are they busy? They are in cars,” he said.

Ma did not elaborate on the company’s plans but said the purpose was not to compete commercially with rivals Tencent and Baidu.

Chinese authorities approved regulations this month to allow for local driverless road tests, according to state-backed media, which reported on Wednesday that Alibaba was adding staff to work on the technology.

Self-driving cars hold the promise of being more attentive and quicker to react than humans at the wheel. The other selling point is that they would also allow people to use travel time more productively or pleasantly. — AFP

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