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Honda joins Baidu's autonomous driving alliance

Automaker is first from Japan to take part in Apollo plan

An autonomous car in Baidu's Apollo program in a road test in Beijing.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Honda Motor is joining a consortium led by Chinese tech giant Baidu aimed at advancing autonomous driving technology, hoping to carve out a share as China races to become the world’s largest market for self-driving vehicles.

The "Apollo Plan," launched in July 2017 by the internet service company, receives state funding as a critical national AI project. Road testing of commercial vehicles will start this year, with passenger vehicle test runs slated to begin next year.

Honda is the first Japanese automaker to join the initiative, which counts Ford Motor and Daimler, as well as U.S. technology companies Nvidia and Intel, among its roughly 100 members. From Japan, consumer electronics maker Pioneer and semiconductor maker Renesas Electronics are also taking part.

Digital maps containing large volumes of data -- including roads, buildings and moving vehicles -- are crucial to making autonomous driving a reality across China's vast land mass. Honda plans to use expertise gained from an advanced car navigation system it has offered since 2015 along with other features to create high-resolution maps for autonomous driving.

Honda has been deepening collaboration with Chinese tech companies. It works with Hong Kong startup SenseTime on image recognition for autonomous driving and with e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding on connected cars.

At present, the U.S. is ahead in development of autonomous driving technology, with road tests taking place in various states. But China is catching up quickly.

China will have 33 million autonomous vehicles in 2030, PwC Consulting in Tokyo projects, compared with 20 million in the U.S. The country is said to have a vast talent pool that can contribute to AI development. As next-generation technologies advance in China, it becomes increasingly important for Japanese companies to have strong research operations there.

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