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Vietnam's FPT sees niche market for its self-driving tech

IT powerhouse tests prototype, aiming to supply to Indian, Chinese automakers

FPT's self-driving vehicle successfully runs along a lane at 25kph while maneuvering to avoid obstacles in a test conducted at the end of October at the company's facility in Ho Chi Minh City.

HANOI -- Vietnam's leading information technology company FPT is accelerating its efforts to develop self-driving car technology. Acquiring strength in the field could let it carve out a niche supplying lower-end automakers around the globe in the burgeoning field.

The company has successfully demonstrated the ability of its own autonomous driving technology to safely run a self-driving vehicle at 25kph.

FPT has teamed up with Daiwa Institute of Research for a joint project to gain a footing in the global race toward a self-driving future. The two companies signed a memorandum on the project earlier this month.

The Vietnamese company is staking its future on the "internet of things." The company hopes that autonomous car technology will be the driving force of its future growth and has an ambitious goal of racking up $200 million in sales in this business in 2020.

The company took a major step toward that goal at the end of October, when it tested its own self-driving technology on the campus of FPT University in Ho Chi Minh City.

The vehicle had cameras on both its hood and roof, with its steering wheel controlled by a computer through a disc-shaped device attached to it.

The self-driving vehicle ran along a lane at 25kph and successfully maneuvered to avoid panels placed on the road to serve as "pedestrians."

It was an impressive feat, given that the company's autonomous driving project had started just one year earlier in October 2016.

The technology features artificial intelligence capable of learning from experiences to improve the safety and reliability of the system's driving performance.

The Vietnamese company plans to sharply boost the number of researchers involved in the autonomous driving project, expanding it to a 1,000 in 2018 and to 8,000 in 2020.

In 2016, the company organized a self-driving car contest for university students as part of its recruitment efforts. Some 500 students from 26 universities across the nation took part in the event.

Toyota Motor is aiming to launch cars with Level 3, or "eyes off" automation features, in which the driver can allow the car to take over most functions, including autonomous lane changes on highways, by around 2020.

FPT is still a ways from acquiring Level 2, or "hands-off" technology, lagging behind major global automakers in the race.

But the Vietnamese company has a clear cost advantage over Western automakers because of lower labor costs in the country.

FPT may seek alliances with other players in the business in emerging countries, such as Vingroup, a major Vietnamese property developer that has entered the car manufacturing business, and emerging automakers in China and India.

The company's self-driving technology is already sufficiently developed to be used in places like factories and university campuses, according to Pham Quang Viet, the FPT official in charge of the project. It can also be used to assist relatively simple driving operations like driving on a highway, he said.

Its research efforts with Daiwa Institute of Research will focus on image-recognition technology, which is vital for autonomous driving.

The Japanese research institute, which is affiliated with Daiwa Securities, is studying the use of AI for stock and foreign exchange market analysis. It believes image recognition technology can play an important role for AI-based market analyses.

Through the joint research project, FPT will be able to obtain cutting-edge data analysis expertise from Daiwa.

In a move to rev up its IoT-driven growth strategy, FPT in August sold a 30% stake in FPT Digital Retail, its IT equipment retail subsidiary, to local investment funds to raise funds to develop IoT-related technologies and products. FPT may opt to sell off its remaining stake in the unit, now slightly over 50%, in the future.

In April 2016, FPT completed the largest IT development center in Vietnam. The 5.9-hectare complex is located in the central Vietnamese city of Danang.

The center will be staffed with some 10,000 engineers in 2020 for operations to obtain IT outsourcing contracts with overseas customers and develop original systems.

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