Baidu, once seen as China’s answer to Google, hopes for a second chance in smart vehicles ahead of secondary listing in Hong Kong

Che Pan
·7-min read

When Baidu launched its initial public offering on the Nasdaq in 2005 it was widely hailed as China’s answer to Google, and it would later follow the California-based giant into the field of artificial intelligence, but today the Chinese company’s market valuation is only 6.3 per cent the size of Google’s.

Since its own listing in 2004, Google has parlayed its 90 per cent dominance of the global internet search market into an online advertisement juggernaut that pulled in US$146.9 billion last year, taking an estimated 45 per cent of every new digital advertising dollar spent.

Baidu, which solidified its position as the dominant search engine for the world’s largest internet population after Google pulled out in 2010, made about 72.8 billion yuan (US$11.2 billion) in digital advertising last year, paltry in comparison yet still the company’s primary source of revenue which has been on a declining trajectory since 2018.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

Baidu’s US$3.1 billion secondary listing in Hong Kong marks the first time in 15 years that the world is getting a peek at how one of China’s first and most famous internet companies wants to stake a claim in China’s ever-evolving digital future.

Blessed by strong capital, protective state policies and an untapped market, Baidu had been one of the most valuable Chinese internet companies. The acronym BAT was coined in the early 2010s in reference to China’s top three tech firms at the time: Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings.

Chinese search giant Baidu doubles down on smart cars as revenue stalls

As cheaper smartphones and faster 4G services in the following decade became a catalyst for rapid growth in China’s mobile internet, Tencent and Alibaba (owner of the Post) seized the opportunity to develop their businesses around these new trends.

Baidu has largely failed to keep up, analysts said. Its market capitalisation dwindled to a small fraction of Alibaba’s and Tencent’s as its search business increasingly came under attack from other rapidly rising tech firms such as ByteDance, owner of short-video app Douyin.

“Baidu doesn’t have an impressive recent record of innovation,” said Brock Silvers, CIO at Hong Kong-based Kaiyuan Capital. “The company coasted from a formerly market-leading position to a second-tier reputation, and was left with an over-reliance upon a tired search engine business.”

In its post-hearing information pack for investors, Baidu portrayed itself as a leader in smart transport and artificial intelligence (AI), growth opportunities it said would keep it relevant in China’s fast-changing tech sphere. But analysts say even with strong offerings like these, the company will have a tough time competing.

“Baidu’s AI business is doing very well, but its overall sales volume is still relatively weak,” said Bill Bai, a Shanghai-based sales manager at VSTECS Holdings, China’s second-largest IT solution distributor. He expects that Baidu would struggle to catch up to rivals in the cloud business this year.

The Baidu logo is seen during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, November 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters
The Baidu logo is seen during the World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, November 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters

As its online marketing revenue waned, Baidu has taken steps to tap into the massive demand for public AI clouds from traditional companies and government agencies. The company’s AI cloud service has grown rapidly in recent years with non-marketing revenue posting a 28 per cent year-on-year increase to 12.4 billion yuan (US$1.9 billion) last year.

Even with Baidu’s expertise in AI, first applied in 2010 to optimise search results, and its Kunlun AI chip design unit, recently valued at US$2 billion after a funding round, the public cloud market will be competitive, with Alibaba, Tencent and telecoms giant Huawei Technologies Co also in this sector. In 2019, Alibaba topped China’s public cloud market with a 37 per cent market share, followed by China Telecom’s Ctyun (Tianyi Cloud) with 13 per cent and Tencent Cloud at 11 per cent, according to data from the Qianzhan Industry Research Institute.

However, Baidu appears to be betting the future of the company on its smart transport initiatives, including its Apollo autonomous driving unit established in 2013, as well as a new joint venture with carmaker Geely with the goal of launching a smart electric vehicle (EV) within three years. Baidu Apollo boasted 4.3 million accumulated self-driving test miles as of December last year and operates a large fleet of robotaxis in several cities in mainland China.

Despite its technical achievements, the Apollo business has been hemorrhaging cash for the past seven years as monetising self-driving technologies proves a difficult task. Most self-driving robotaxi operators have to apply for licences from local authorities to operate fleets in designated areas, and current regulations stipulate that a human driver must be present to take over in case of an emergency caused by failure of the self-driving system.

“Fully autonomous driving is not a purely technical issue, currently it can only be used in designated areas,” said Gartner vice president and analyst Roger Sheng.

Commercial prospects for robotaxi services remain nebulous in the near term due to the immaturity of the technology, the absence of legislation to clearly define responsibility in case of a self-driving accident, and persistently high costs associated with the complex self-driving systems.

In January, Baidu announced a move into China’s fiercely-competitive EV market in a bid to explore additional ways to monetise its autonomous driving technologies. Asked about the rationale behind the partnership with Geely, Baidu’s CEO and founder Robin Li said in February that carmakers had taken a “wait-and-see” attitude to the adoption of Baidu’s “very advanced autonomous driving technologies”.

“Most of the traditional OEMs tend to wait until someone else adopts the latest technology,” Li said. “That’s why we decided to build a benchmark vehicle,” he added, referring to the Baidu-Geely smart EV.

Baidu will encounter serious competition in a crowded market of more than 500 players,including foreign brands like Tesla and home-grown ones like Nio, Xpeng and Li Auto – all pinning their future growth on China’s market. As a result, analysts are pessimistic on whether Baidu can make a comeback based on its ambitious EV and autonomous driving strategy.

NIO, China’s bellwether EV start-up sees sales slump as Tesla’s cut-price Model Y steals its thunder

“China’s EV sector is already fiercely competitive and overcapitalised,” said Silvers. “Baidu aims to conquer smart transport, but search engines aren’t automobiles, it needs a near-term business transition strategy, and the market isn’t yet convinced by the company’s announced plans.”

Gartner’s Sheng added, “There is already too much competition in China’s EV market and those who entered the market early are kings.”

Baidu’s EV venture is still short on specifics. A former Geely sales manager, who requested anonymity as he was not authorised to speak with the media, told the Post that details such as the model and price range have not been finalised, adding that the project remains at a very preliminary stage.

For other observers, Baidu’s prospects in smart transport are not so bleak because of the potential size of China’s EV market and the fact that the company has an edge in areas like high-definition maps and AI.

“Baidu’s automobile-related business is worth watching, but it has to invest a lot in the first place because a profitable business model is not clear at the preliminary stage,” said Shawn Yang, manager director of Blue Lotus Capital Advisors.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Baidu, once seen as China’s answer to Google, hopes for a second chance in smart vehicles ahead of secondary listing in Hong Kong first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.