Didi is now ready to take on Google and Tesla in self-driving cars

Restless CEO.
Restless CEO.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing has become a near-monopoly in China, having acquired Uber’s business there over a year ago. Its biggest goal now, according to CEO Cheng Wei, is to take on Google and Tesla in the the realm of self-driving cars.

Cheng shared his vision in an exclusive interview (link in Chinese) published yesterday by Chinese business magazine Caijing. Challenging Google might sound ambitious, but Didi has no shortage of resources for the task. This year it raised nearly $10 billion in two funding rounds, and it’s hired key engineering talent from the self-driving units of Google and Uber to work at its US-based research lab, which also focuses on artificial intelligence.

While Didi will continue to fight Uber globally in ride-hailing, he views that as a battle in a larger war. The victorious ride-hailing player will eventually compete against—and sometimes cooperate with—Google and Tesla in self-driving vehicles, with the winner going on to “build a transportation and vehicle system for the future,” he said.

Cheng considers Google the top player in self-driving vehicles, but of the companies competing to be number two—among them Tesla and Chinese search giant Baidu—Didi has the best shot, he believes. He noted his company has the advantage of 21 million vehicles with which to collect data. What’s more, it can make money on driverless cars by dispatching them via its ride-hailing platforms, rather than by trying to sell them to consumers.

Didi is also unafraid to get creative: It recently launched a contest with Udacity, a US-based learning platform, inviting teams to develop a system to improve driving safety for autonomous (and regular) vehicles.

Didi could fall short, of course, a possibility Cheng acknowledges. But it would still have options for growing its business.

Domestically, Didi is steadily expanding beyond its core ride-hailing business into areas including car rentals and food delivery, and it’s building a network of electric-vehicle charging stations nationwide. The company has also made a bet on China’s booming bike-sharing sector through its investment in Ofo, one of the two leading on-demand bike services.

But none of these is as important to Didi as self-driving vehicles, Cheng said. “If Didi fails, we’ll then put the $10 billion we raised into the battle of diversifying [domestic businesses]. This would look tragic to me.”