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Business trends

Baidu enters Japan's self-driving bus market with SoftBank

Partners seek to start vehicle testing by year-end

BEIJING -- Chinese internet search leader Baidu is tying up with SB Drive, a subsidiary of SoftBank Group, to enter Japan's autonomous vehicle market.

Both have been investing in autonomous driving and aim to marry their systems in a bus model that would go into testing by year-end. China's Xiamen King Long United Automotive Industry will build the bus, currently called Apolong. The companies aim to ship 10 buses to Japan by 2019 and to begin commercialization later.

The Chinese government has established artificial intelligence as a key priority under its Made in China 2025 industrial program. Baidu is seen as one of the country's leading players in AI, the core technology for autonomous driving.

Baidu and SB Drive will start test drives in a closed area initially, but hope to begin tests on public roads soon after. In China, Baidu is testing self-driving vehicles in the Xiongan New Area, a new city being developed at the direction of President Xi Jinping to relieve population pressures in Beijing.

Baidu's Apollo project to develop a platform for autonomous vehicles includes Ford, Honda Motor and approximately other 100 global companies as partners. Its alliance with SB Drive will involve use of the Japanese company's operations management system among other technologies.

SB Drive has already been testing self-driving buses, using French-made electric models as a platform, at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and is testing buses using other model platforms at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The company aims to put the buses into regular use at Haneda in 2020.

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