Mao Zedong's Red Flag car gets driverless makeover

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s iconic Red Flag, the vehicle of choice of former revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, is going hands-free.

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Chinese tech giant Baidu Inc said on Thursday it would launch a fully autonomous passenger car next year in a partnership with Hongqi, or Red Flag, the car brand long favored by China’s political elite.

Hongqi, owned by carmaker China FAW Group Corp Ltd, is widely regarded as a symbol of China’s early communist revolutionary elite, including Mao and Deng Xiaoping, who rode the luxury sedan in the 1960s and 1970s.

Baidu, often seen as China’s equivalent to Alphabet Inc’s Google, said it will produce a limited number of fully automated level four Hongqi vehicles in 2019 for a pilot operation, before wider release in 2020.

Level four means they require no human intervention during autonomous driving in most conditions, said Baidu Chief Executive Robin Li and FAW Chairman Xu Liuping at an event held to announce the plan.

Baidu has previously unveiled fully autonomous buses and trucks, but the Hongqi car marks a major push into self-driving vehicles for public use. The car it showed off on Thursday was white sports utility vehicle with a large sensor on its roof.

The tech firm is leading the charge in China’s effort to build autonomous cars with strong backing from the Chinese government, which named Baidu - whose main business is internet search - as one of four national champions in artificial intelligence (AI).

The company is also working with several of China’s largest cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, to develop autonomous driving infrastructure and public smart transport technology.

Baidu’s announcement comes as Google’s autonomous driving project Waymo is set to begin testing fully autonomous cars on California’s roads after earlier trials in other parts of the United States.

Baidu has also reached an agreement to develop self-driving electric vehicles with Chinese-owned Volvo Cars, and announced a tie-up with Ford Motor Co on Wednesday to test self-driving vehicles on Chinese roads.

China’s industry ministry has unveiled plans to become a world leader in several AI technologies, including autonomous driving, in the next decade.

The Hongqi marque has undergone several revamps over the decades, falling out of favor for a period in the 1980s, but more recently being revived amid a national push to promote Chinese brands. It has also created an electric concept car.

President Xi Jinping rode a Hongqi car during recent military parades and last month a Hongqi car was used to transport Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a rare state visit.

Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Christopher Cushing