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Baidu Hopes to be the ‘Android' of Self-Driving Car Software

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【Summary】Internet search giant Google made its Android operating system the world’s most popular operating system by keeping it open. Now, Chinese Internet company Baidu is doing the same thing with its self-driving car software named Apollo.

Original Eric Walz    Aug 14, 2017 5:44 PM PT
Baidu Hopes to be the ‘Android' of Self-Driving Car Software

Internet search giant Google made its Android operating system the world's most popular operating system by keeping it open, giving free access to its software to mobile-device makers and wireless carriers so they could utilize its platform. Now, Chinese Internet company Baidu is doing the same thing with its self-driving car software named Apollo.

Since Baidu announced that its Apollo self-driving car software will remain open source, a host of partner companies are lining up, including Uber rival Grab, mapping specialist TomTom and Ford Motor Co. So far, more than 50 partners are listed under Baidu's Apollo project to distribute its driverless software to other companies and also develop a self-driving vehicle that can be mass-produced.

Apollo's moniker was inspired by the U.S. space program that put a man on the moon. Baidu hopes Apollo will emulate the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by tapping the expertise and resources of top tech companies.

Baidu's development of driverless technology is being overseen by an Autonomous Driving Unit (ADU) that was created last year. The ADU comprises more than 100 Silicon Valley-based researchers, including machine-learning experts, hardware designers and software engineers. They cover a range of specialties, from robotics and computer vision to onboard computers and sensors.

"Baidu's Silicon Valley car team will play a significant role in building the car of the future," Jing Wang, the general manager of Baidu's autonomous driving unit, said when the group was formed in April 2016.

Apollo is charged with coming up with everything needed to run an autonomous car. The supporting technology is expected to include cloud services, an open software stack, hardware and vehicle platforms.

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Both Bosch and Continental are now partnered up with Baidu, and are working together on automated driving, connected cars, and advanced mobility services.

Baidu has teamed with Nvidia to provide the hardware on which its artificial-intelligence-driven driverless platform will run. The platform chips provided by Nvidia are the same ones being used by major carmakers such as Toyota, Tesla and Volvo to operate their systems.

Several new partnerships come after BMW ended a two year stint of collaboration with Baidu on self-driving cars in November of last year.

Last year, the Chinese search firm also jointly invested US$150 million in Velodyne, a company that makes LiDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors that guide autonomous vehicles.

Baidu's ADU got another boost in April when Baidu agreed to acquire US computer vision firm xPerception for an undisclosed sum to back its AI efforts. Baidu plans to use the firm's technology for augmented-reality (AR) projects in addition to driverless cars.

Building a Brand

Baidu needs to prove that it can build a global brand for driverless cars, and this entails more than just developing the software or creating a prototype vehicle with outside help.

"It's the whole car that matters, and Baidu will have to commercialize it and build a global brand," said David Garrity, a technology and investment analyst who heads New York-based GVA Research. Whatever vehicle Baidu and its partners develop, according to Garrity, needs be an integrated product that appeals to consumers from a performance, comfort and design point of view.

Baidu Begins Testing at GoMentum

Last week, Baidu joined the list of companies testing self-driving cars at GoMentum Station, a former military facility in Concord, California, just east of San Francisco.

GoMentum Station is the nation's largest secure testing facility for autonomous and connected vehicle technology. The Contra Costa Transportation Authority and its partners lead a collaborative effort at the facility, bringing together automobile manufacturers, communications companies, technology companies, researchers and public agencies with the aim of accelerating the next generation of transportation technologies.

Contra Costa County officials announced that Baidu will test its autonomous vehicles at the secure site, a former naval weapons depot that is off-limits to the public. GoMentum has approximately 20 miles of road can be used to simulate conditions found on public streets, similar to both rural highways and a city grid. Honda, self-driving truck company Otto and autonomous shuttle-bus developer EasyMile have each used the GoMentum site for tests.

"Its ability to offer mixed road conditions and various scenarios in a secure environment will provide our Apollo open autonomous driving platform with valuable data to further advance its technologies," said Jingao Wang, senior director of Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group, in a press release.

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Since announcing Project Apollo in April, more than 50 companies have joined Baidu's open-source initiative to perfect driverless car technology, including most recently, Microsoft. Microsoft will help the China-centric effort expand into the U.S. and Europe.

Under the terms of the partnership between the Chinese and U.S. tech giants, Microsoft Azure will serve as Apollo's global cloud platform. Both Baidu and Microsoft will also find opportunities to provide connected vehicle services for autonomous driving, the companies said. Baidu hopes to have its fully autonomous cars on the roads by 2020.

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