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Tech by VICE

China's Google Is Building a Driverless 'Smartbike'

Baidu says its smartbike "will know the owner's requirements and health index, and will be able to drive by itself."

by Brian Merchant
Jul 11 2014, 11:50pm
Image: Sara Marlowe, Flickr

Google wants self-driving cars. Amazon's after delivery drones. Baidu wants to automate bikes.

After a flurry of speculation, the Chinese tech giant has confirmed it's gunning for driverless electronic bikes. Baidu is China's largest web services company—in the region, it commands upwards of 73 percent of the search market—and it has apparently pursued a "secret plan" to debut a prototype of a self-driving electric bicycle by the end of the year. 

Baidu calls it, simply. the 'smartbike.' The company has made something of a habit of emulating Google, too; last year, it unveiled a Glass knockoff called Baidu Eye.

But the smartbike idea actually makes a lot of sense; for one thing, bike ownership far outpaces car ownership in China. There are over half a billion bikes on the country's streets; some 120 million of those are electric. Meanwhile, like Google, Baidu hosts a huge amount of mapping and geolocation data, which will be useful in building out the navigation systems. 

Details of the plan are sparse, but Sina News was able to snag a few. Zhang Liyuan, a Baidu public relations rep, told the outlet that smartbikes will automatically recognize its owner and monitor health stats, in addition to providing automated transport. Sina reports that, "Using advanced intelligent sensors and big data analysis in the cloud, the bicycle will know the owner's requirements and health index, and will be able to drive by itself, [Zhang] said. Former reports had said that unmanned bicycles can sense the environment well enough to avoid obstacles, navigate complicated road conditions, and even identify their owners."

China's tech blogs are already speculating further. "The implications for such a device could be huge in the logistics industry," TechInAsia suggests. "Like the rest of Asia, dozens upon dozens of local courier companies use scooters and other two-wheeled transportation to deliver packages and food. Individuals could benefit from many of the same perks as they would with self-driving cars, such as sending bikes to pick their kids up from school and transporting persons who are blind or disabled."

These smartbikes could also eventually help reduce traffic congestion and chaos, much as driverless cars aim to do. But, as with self-driving cars, autobikes are likely quite a ways off. If the prototype does indeed debut by the end of the year, it will take time for the technology to clear the requisite safety, regulatory, and functionality hurdles—fewer though there may be, especially given that Baidu is heavily supported by the government—and automated e-bikes make it onto the streets.