BEIJING, May 16 (TiPost) – Chinese e-commerce group Alibaba Group’s self-driving team will be merged into its global logistics network Cainiao in the wake of group-wide reorganization and slow progress in the application of the cutting-edge technology.
Alibaba announced that it would be split into six business groups on March 28, with each group or company fully responsible for their own management, finance and personnel. As one of the six business groups, Cainiao also aims for its intial public offering, putting pressure on monetizing the autonomous driving technology.
“Cainiao will not spend lavishly on the self-driving business. Instead, the focus will be shifted to the practical scenarios,” an insider at Alibaba said. According to him, following the organizational change, each business unit needs to assume full responsibility for its profits or losses, meaning that the investment in fully automated driving would be too heavy a burden on the logistics arm.
DAMO Academy’s autonomous driving venture began in 2017, with a primary emphasis on fully automated driving. In March 2017, Wang Gang resigned from Nanyang Technological University to become chief scientist at Alibaba A.I. Labs. By October that year, Alibaba had established the academy as a dedicated research entity for fundamental science and ground-breaking technologies, incorporating the lab within it. By April 2018, Alibaba had already deployed self-driving vehicles for regular road testing.
Nevertheless, the application of fully automated driving technology on public roads poses considerable challenges. Even Google’s self-driving venture Waymo has invested over a decade of efforts without achieving practical application due to complex traffic conditions.
In the face of application challenges, DAMO Academy has shifted the focus of its self-driving business from passenger cars to commercial vehicles that cater to simple scenarios. In September 2020, it introduced the logistics self-driving vehicle called “Little Donkey,” primarily intended for Cainiao’s “last three kilometers” service. This service includes express delivery, takeaway, fresh food, and various instant delivery requirements. However, the adoption scale of the vehicle fell short of the company’s expectations.
In September 2021, Wang made an announcement regarding the DAMO Academy’s continued advancements in the research and development of an L4-level self-driving truck called “Big Donkey.” He also mentioned the initiation of small-scale road testing in collaboration with Cainiao. Both vehicles utilize a shared self-driving technology framework developed by the same team.
Currently, the global autonomous driving endeavor led by Waymo is experiencing a decline, prompting the industry to shift towards Tesla’s progressive approach. This approach involves initially focusing on achieving assisted driving and gradually expanding the scope of autonomous driving scenarios while maintaining human-vehicle collaboration. Many autonomous driving software manufacturers have redirected their efforts towards collaboration with car manufacturers to facilitate the practical implementation of their technologies.
In 2022, DAMO Academy’s autonomous driving business underwent significant management changes. After leading the business for five years, Wang departed from Alibaba at the beginning of the year to embark on his entrepreneurial journey. Later that year, Chen Junbo, who had taken over from Wang, also left. Additionally, on December 29, 2022, Cheng Li, CTO of Alibaba and Cainiao, the driving force behind the “Little Donkey” project, announced his retirement from the company.
Several media outlets reported that only less than 100 individuals from the “Little Donkey” team were integrated into Cainiao. The remaining self-driving team, consisting of approximately 200 members, would either be internally transferred or laid off. In response, DAMO Academy clarified that while some personnel from the self-driving business were indeed transferred to Cainiao, others would be reassigned to different businesses in Alibaba. They further stated that the allegation of a “70% layoff” was untrue.