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One of Baidu’s prototype self-driving cars. (Nvidia Photo)

Baidu has been among the most aggressive companies driving research into self-driving cars with artificial intelligence, and it announced Tuesday that it wants Microsoft to be its cloud partner outside its home country.

Announced this past April, Baidu’s Apollo project is an effort to give car makers a software platform around which to build self-driving automobiles. Four Chinese car makers have joined Baidu’s alliance of companies working on its technology, and Azure will now be the preferred cloud partner for any customer outside of China that wants to use Baidu’s software.

Baidu wants to have a self-driving car with its technology out next year, with the goal of mass commercial adoption by 2021, which seems ambitious. It recently added Nvidia’s Drive PX artificial intelligence technology to the project, and partnering with Microsoft seems like a natural fit for new Baidu President and Chief Operating Officer Qi Lu, a longtime Microsoft researcher and executive.

For its part, Microsoft hasn’t plunged as far into the self-driving car race as have Baidu and Google, but it is working on AI-powered technology for car makers to use with features like driver assist, it said in a blog post. It’s still very early, of course, and there could be plenty of opportunities for Microsoft to make a deeper contribution to this field.

Baidu released Project Apollo to a limited number of partners in China earlier this month, and will release the platform to the world later this year.

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