The race for autonomous vehicles seems to suggest that soon, the biggest names in vehicles won’t be automakers. Technology and internet service companies all over the world are throwing loads of money at developing autonomous vehicles. Chinese e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba is currently the world’s sixth-largest internet company based on revenue, but it could soon also become one of the biggest names in autonomous vehicles thanks to a massive expansion of its self-driving vehicle program. Will Alibaba beat out American tech firms in the race to develop a safe fully autonomous driving system?

Make no mistake – the keyword here is “safe.” Uber and other companies already have operating autonomous vehicle systems, but you likely already know how well those have been going. To compete with these big-name developers, Alibaba has recently hired an additional 50 experts for its autonomous driving system and says they will soon debut “level 4” autonomous driving technology. Level 4 means a car can handle all driving responsibilities and operate without a driver’s attention – but only in certain environments. The highest level, level 5, means an autonomous vehicle can operate on all road types and in all conditions.

No Western automaker has fully unleashed level 4 autonomous vehicle tech – at least on public roads. Regulations in the U.S. still require developers to test their vehicles with a human backup driver. Of course, that didn’t stop Uber’s self-driving car from killing a pedestrian earlier this year. Alibaba got a much later start to the self-driving game than its two closest Chinese competitors, Baidu and Tencent. Still, by claiming to be ready to make the jump to level 4, Alibaba seems to be signalling that they are already ahead of the pack. Can Alibaba be as successful in the autonomous vehicle market as they have in the ecommerce market? \