China’s search engine giant Baidu is reshaping itself as a high-tech company of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Its recent attempt to impress the public is the introduction of its driverless car open platform Apollo. However, its debut led to an accident at its AI developers conference Baidu Create 2017 in Beijing last Wendesday.
When Baidu group president Lu Qi was kicking off the conference on Wednesday morning, he made a live video call to Baidu founder and CEO Robin Li who appeared sitting in an Apollo-powered driverless car on the way to the convention.
Beijing traffic police soon annouced that it was illegal to test self-driving cars on public roads under current traffic laws. This embarrassing news went viral on China’s social media later that day.
What is Baidu’s Apollo anyway?
According to Lu, Apollo is a driverless car open platform which aims to enable developers to build their own auto driving systems with the help of Baidu’s software, hardware and services.
“Apollo is just like the Android system of the car industry,” said Lu. “And it will be more open than Android.”
Baidu brought up Apollo for the first time in April this year. During Wednesday’s conference, Lu announced that Baidu would open Apollo’s sources and abilities to developers step by step.
According to Lu’s introduction, developers will have access to Apollo 1.0 in July in which they can build entry level driverless cars that can only run along a set route in a restricted area.
Apollo product manager Dawen Zhou told AllTechAsia at the conference that self-driving cars under Apollo 1.0 will not be able to detect and dodge objects in front of them.
By the end of this year, a more advanced Apollo which will enable driverless cars to run in simple city streets will be open to developers. By then, more sensors including LiDAR will be supported by Apollo and cars will be able to deal with obstacles in front of them, according to Zhou.
Ultimately, a more mature Apollo will be available for developers around 2020. It will enable driverless cars to run on complicated city streets and highways.
Lu claimed that Baidu is working with over 50 partners to develop Apollo-powered self-driving cars. These include car manufacturers Daimler and Ford.
AutonomouStuff, a U.S. based autonomous system components supplier, is among those partners working with Baidu. Its lead software engineer Josh Whitely told AllTechAsia at the conference that his firm provides vehicles and its by-wire systems for Baidu’s Apollo project. It also offers some integration services for the Apollo software.
“Baidu gave us the early release of the software and we tested it in the United States on our vehicles there,” said Whitely. “We came to China and installed everything on the vehicles in three days. So we set up a fully autonomous vehicle in three days.”
Who else is in the driverless car game in China?
Baidu is not the only major Internet company in China that engages in the car industry. China’s e-commerce behemoth Alibaba and social and gaming giant Tencent are competing in this track as well.
Alibaba reshuffled its automobile business and established an auto business group in April 2015. It began to work with SAIC Motor, one of China’s biggest car manufacturers, to develop “cars on Internet” since March 2015. Their cooperation bore its first fruit in July 2016 with the launch of Roewe X5 SUV powered by Alibaba’s YunOS. Users are able to look for map information, parking lots, and restaurants through voice interaction with the car system.
Tencent has kept a low profile in developing its car business until it bought 5 percent of Tesla stocks with USD 1.78 billion in March 2017. Prior to this, Tencent set up its auto driving lab in late 2016 and has been working with Apple products manufacturer Foxconn and Chinese car dealer Harmony Group to develop electric cars since March 2015.
(Top photo from 58pic.com)