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Didi has opened a self-driving lab in the U.S. with famed Jeep hacker Charlie Miller

The Mountain View lab will focus on AI-based security and intelligent driving systems for cars.

Didi Chuxing CEO Jean Liu
Didi President Jean Liu
Asa Mathat

Didi, China’s largest ride-hail player, is getting serious about self-driving cars. The company, which acquired Uber’s China assets in August 2016, today is opening an artificial intelligence lab right in the backyard of many of its self-driving competitors in Mountain View, Calif.

It’s a big move for the company that as of January has expanded into places like Southeast Asia, India and Brazil through a series of investments in local ride-hail players. But this is one of the first times Didi has expanded its physical footprint outside of China.

It’s a smart, almost necessary move for Didi to move its AI operations to what is quickly becoming the mecca of the self-driving industry, mostly because that’s where the talent is.

Competition in the autonomous vehicle space is steep and, given that some of the skills needed to build these robot cars are still nascent, there isn’t exactly enough top talent to go around.

To that end, Didi has poached Charlie Miller, the famed engineer who hacked and stopped a Jeep remotely, away from none other than Uber’s self-driving department to lead Didi’s security and safety development teams. Miller announced he was leaving Uber last week.

Miller will report to Dr. Fengmin Gong, the co-founder of Palo Alto Networks and now Didi’s vice president of information security.

Didi has also poached engineers away from Google’s self-driving arm. Jia Zhaoyin, last a senior software engineer at Google’s self-driving project Waymo, is now a principal engineer at Didi.

The Chinese company’s new U.S. lab, which will focus on intelligent driving systems and AI-based security for transportation, also formalizes what many already knew: Didi is working on self-driving cars.

The company has already partnered with Udacity — a college-level nanodegree startup — on its self-driving program, at the end of which Didi and a number of other partnering companies get first pick of the graduates the companies want to hire.

Now, the two companies are also launching a $100,000 autonomous tech competition. Participants will be asked to create automated safety technology. Five finalists will be chosen to demonstrate their code on Udacity’s test cars, and the winners will take home $100,000 and have the opportunity to work at Didi’s lab.

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