The driverless car market could be worth as much as US$7 trillion by 2050. It’s clear, therefore, that the potential reward from winning the driverless car race is high. Yet, while Western investors might be betting on the likes of Google and Tesla to emerge victoriously, there are good signs that key companies across Asia are well set to taste success – good news for both pioneering startups leading the way in developing the technology needed to get driverless cars on the road and big players aiming to attract multi-billion dollar deals.
Why should we look to Asia and not America, then?
The Lion City is a breeding ground for cutting-edge ideas – and its government is especially keen to provide the tools and environment needed for tech startups to launch and grow.
It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, to learn that Singapore has been at the vanguard when it comes to driverless vehicles. In 2016, the world’s first driverless taxis took to the roads for a public trial. The taxis – which are the brainchild of NuTonomy – are far from the only form of driverless transport set to hit the roads in the city-state. Indeed, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced in November that driverless buses are due to be in use by 2022.
Singapore doesn’t just aim to be tech-friendly and business-friendly – a significant push factor comes in the government’s stated ambition to be ‘car lite’, something that few other locations have adopted so far. This ambition is partly pragmatic – there’s little land available for new roads and a desire to avoid the sorts of traffic jams that blight other locations – but also partly with a nod to environmental and health concerns. Singapore hopes that driverless vehicles can be an important part of this – weaning the population off needing their own vehicles in a positive way, encouraging them to see this as part of technological progress rather than giving up a luxury.
Asian startups can provide the innovation needed to power driverless cars, but huge companies – with deep pockets – are needed to match the financial might of Silicon Valley. That’s exactly what Baidu, the company behind China’s biggest search engine, offers.
Last September it launched the 10 billion yuan Apollo Fund to invest in more than 100 autonomous driving projects in the next three years. Baidu will sit at the top of a driverless ecosystem of different companies and is keen to win this race, helping to secure its position as an AI specialist after its search business took a hit through tougher government rules.
The quality of Baidu’s algorithms put it into a strong position to teach cars how to recognize hazards on the roads – and the company claims it hasn’t had an accident since it started its autonomous project in 2013. Its bold ambition is to release a driverless car this year – rolling them out for mass production in 2021.
Whether it’s the might of Baidu or the perfect breeding ground of Singapore, Asian companies have the knowledge, funding, and environment needed to get ahead of their American rivals in the great driverless car race. Investors, whether they are purchasing shares or putting their money into funds, should keep a close eye on this race and be ready to spot and back the winner.