Didi Chuxing, the ride-hail app that bought Uber’s Chinese business last summer after a lengthy and expensive battle, is now opening an R&D center in Uber’s backyard. Didi Labs will be based in Mountain View, California and will be focused on hiring (and probably poaching) top engineering talent to work on artificial intelligence and self-driving car technology.
The Beijing-based company doesn’t have any plans to launch a rival service in the US, but the opening of a Silicon Valley-based facility is clearly meant to serve as a shot across Uber’s bow at a time when the company is reeling from multiple scandals. Like Uber, Didi has said it is interested in developing driverless car technology.
Didi Labs will be led by Fengmin Gong, vice president of the company’s research institute, and will include data scientists like Charlie Miller, the computer scientist who notably hacked a Jeep’s software and stopped the vehicle remotely in 2015. Miller had been working for the last year-and-a-half at Uber before announcing his plans to step down earlier this month.
Didi had a very interesting 2016, to say the least. The company first crossed many peoples’ radars when Apple announced it had invested an eye-popping $1 billion in the ride-hail service. At the time, Didi was locked in an intense competition with Uber for China’s rapidly growing ride-hail market.
Eventually the battle grew too costly for Uber, which was reportedly spending $1 billion a year in China. In August, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced his plan to sell his Chinese business to Uber for a 17.7 percent stake in Didi. In exchange, Didi invested $1 billion in Uber.
Didi does insane amounts of business in China, so it’s unsurprising that the firm would look to expand its reach by tapping into Silicon Valley’s talent pipeline. As of October 2016, Didi said it was performing 20 million rides a day.
The company also announced that it was teaming up with Udacity, a college level tech degree startup, to launch a self-driving car challenge with the possibility of winning a grand prize of $100,000. Udacity recently applied for an autonomous vehicle testing permit in California, allowing it to test its self-driving cars on public roads.