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Alibaba backtracks on autonomous driving R&D

Alibaba's DAMO Academy's autonomous driving lab will lay off about 70 percent of its staff, while others will be transferred to the e-commerce giant's logistics arm, according to local media.

Alibaba backtracks on autonomous driving R&D-CnEVPost

(Image credit: DAMO Academy)

Alibaba, one of China's most powerful tech giants, is backing away from autonomous driving research and development, highlighting the challenges facing the field.

Alibaba's DAMO Academy no longer retains its autonomous driving business and team, which was merged into its logistics unit Cainiao, the Shanghai Securities News said in a report today, citing people from the e-commerce giant.

This means that Alibaba's autonomous driving business is entering a whole new phase of moving from cutting-edge tech exploration in the lab to applications in real-world scenarios, the report noted.

The Shanghai Securities News report did not provide more information, but according to a subsequent report by Jiemian, another local media outlet, not all of DAMO Academy's autonomous driving business was merged into Cainiao, but rather a significant layoff will be made.

DAMO Academy's autonomous driving lab previously had more than 300 people, with 80-90 receiving the option to move to work at Cainiao, while about 200 others, or about 70 percent, will be laid off, according to Jiemian.

One of the key reasons Cainiao was unable to take on all members of the team was the limited investment it was willing to make, the report said, citing an Alibaba insider.

The team that will be incorporated into Cainiao will be primarily responsible for keeping the autonomous driving robot Xiaomanlv, or little donkeys, in business and will not do much expansion, the report said.

Xiaomanlv is an L4 autonomous driving product launched by DAMO Academy's autonomous driving lab in September 2020 to serve the last three kilometers of delivery, take-out and fresh food delivery.

To date, the autonomous driving robot has entered more than 200 universities and communities, with a fleet size exceeding 500 vehicles.

It is worth noting that DAMO Academy's self-driving lab has undergone previous management changes.

In January 2022, the lab's then-head, Wang Gang, left after three years on board. In March this year, his successor, Chen Junbo, also left after one year in the position.

Alibaba's move underscores the huge challenges facing autonomous driving R&D.

At the end of March, BYD chairman and president Wang Chuanfu said at an earnings meeting that autonomous driving is nonsense that comes out of capital coercion.

BYD has more than 600,000 employees, and the company can't even replace all its workers with machines, because the machines can't simulate every scenario of manual operation, he said.

"It's not even possible to do unattended work on a fixed production line, let alone the ever-changing actual road conditions," Wang said at the time.

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