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Baidu plans to launch a self-driving car in 2015 Reuters

Chinese internet giant Baidu is to launch its first self-driving car later this year, giving itself a substantial head start on US rival Google.

Having previously worked on autonomous car technologies with BMW, Baidu says it is ready to launch the vehicle later in 2015. It will not be entirely automated, as Google's car will be. Instead, it will include conventional pedals and focus on giving the driver less to do, rather than taking over the role of driving entirely.

A report first appearing on Chinese-language website TechWeb, then republished by the BBC, claims Baidu will make its autonomous dreams a reality later this year. The company will be working in partnership with an unnamed car manufacturer, senior vice president Jin Wang said.

Baidu is the most popular website in China and the fifth most popular worldwide. Like Google, it has a search engine and a variety of other services including Baidu Maps, which could play a key role in how its car will navigate without human intervention.

Almost a year ago, Baidu's vice director of research, Kai Yu, said the company had plans to produce a partly autonomous car. He said the future vehicle "should not totally replace the driver but give the driver freedom. Freedom means the car is intelligent enough to operate by itself, like a horse, and make decisions under different road situations. Whenever the driver wants to resume control, you can do that."

This vision is similar to that of Tesla, whose Model S P85D can drive itself along motorways, slowing, steering and accelerating itself by watching vehicles around it and sticking to a driver-set maximum speed. The car can also change lanes when the driver flicks the indicator stalk left or right.

Baidu's plans to launch this year are incredibly optimistic compared to the rest of the autonomous car industry. Google says its pod-like vehicles could be on the roads by the end of the decade, while company insiders claim Apple is also working on a 2020 deadline for a self-driving car of its own. This leads us to believe Baidu's car will be much more like the partly autonomous Tesla than the fully automated Google car.

A Bloomberg report from earlier this year claimed Baidu was teaming up with taxi app company Uber to buy Nokia's Here mapping service, which could be used to help guide a self-driving car.