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China's Baidu Granted Permit to Deploy Self-Driving Vehicles in Beijing Without Human Backup

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【Summary】On Friday, China's Baidu said it was granted a permit to deploy self-driving vehicles on public roads in Beijing without human backup drivers. The vehicles are being tested for Baidu’s planned commercial robotaxi service called “Apollo Go.” Baidu said obtaining the driverless testing permit in Beijing is a breakthrough that will help the company accelerate the large-scale deployment of autonomous driving technology across China.

Eric Walz    Dec 07, 2020 1:00 PM PT
China's Baidu Granted Permit to Deploy Self-Driving Vehicles in Beijing Without Human Backup
A line of Baidu Apollo self-driving robotaxis.

China's internet giant Baidu has been developing autonomous driving technology under its "Apollo" open platform since 2017. Baidu launched Apollo with the intent to accelerate the development of autonomous driving technology through collaboration with industry partners. To date, over 100 companies have joined the open Apollo platform, including automakers BMW, Ford Motor Co, Volkswagen, Toyota and Honda. 

With Apollo, Baidu has made great progress on the development of Level-4 autonomous technology in just over three years. Baidu's Apollo platform has released 600,000 lines of open source code and 45,000 developers have signed on to collaborate on autonomous driving development. 

On Friday, Baidu said it was granted a permit to deploy self-driving vehicles on public roads in Beijing without human backup drivers on board. The vehicles are being tested for Baidu's commercial robotaxi service called "Apollo Go." Baidu demonstrated a fully-autonomous Apollo Go robotaxi without a safety driver onboard at the annual Baidu World 2020 conference in September.

The permit will help Baudi gradually reduce human intervention on test vehicles and eventually remove in-car safety drivers from its autonomous vehicle road tests.

Baidu said obtaining the driverless testing permit in Beijing is a breakthrough that will help accelerate the large-scale deployment of autonomous driving technology across China. The company's AI powered level 4 autonomous vehicles are now capable of operating in complex urban road conditions without human intervention, Baidu said. 

Beijing has strict safety requirements for companies seeking a driverless testing permission in China. The license structure implemented in Beijing for autonomous driving road tests have five levels ranging from T1 to T5. The requirements include obtaining T3 or higher testing ability, completing more than 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) of on road testing and passing an evaluation on a closed track. T3 is the highest level that has been issued in China to date. 

Baidu said it has cleared each of these requirements, but has also developed its 5G "Remote Driving Service" to further guarantee safety.

Baidu said that all the vehicles operating without safety drivers on public roads will be supported by its 5G-powered Remote Driving Service, which allows safety drivers to remotely take control of vehicles in the case of emergency. The technology is commonly referred to as "teleoperations."

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The permit allows Baidu to test its self-driving vehicles on public roads in Beijing without safety drivers.

Baidu is one of the first companies in China to pick up passengers in autonomous vehicles. The Apollo Go robotaxi service opened to the public in October after a limited test launch in September.  

Baidu has 14 pick-up and drop-off stations approved and opened to the public in Beijing. The service will expand to nearly 100 pick-up and drop-off stations covering residential and business areas in Yizhuang, Haidian, and Shunyi districts in the near future, Baidu said. 

The Apollo Go service is free for riders and there are no reservations necessary. Riders can summon a Apollo Go robotaxi using Baidu Maps, the Apollo Go smartphone app, or the Apollo Go mini program in the Baidu app. 

In China, Baidu is emerging as a leader in autonomous driving technology, much like Waymo is in the U.S. Waymo spun out of Google's self-driving car project which began in 2009. Waymo's fleet of autonomous vehicles has traveled over 20 million miles on public roads and billions more in computer simulation.

Baidu joins autonomous driving developer AutoX in testing vehicles without backup drivers in China. Like Baidu, AutoX is planning to launch its own commercial robotaxi service in China.  

The AutoX service is simply called "Robotaxi" and was launched with a fleet of 25 driverless vehicles in Shenzhen and five in other cities in China. The AutoX fleet is made up of modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans, the same model that Waymo is using in the U.S. 

Users are able to book a ride in one the AutoX driverless vehicles using the AutoNavi smartphone app, a popular mapping and transportation-booking app in China. It's the first time an autonomous ride-hailing service was made available on a major ride-hailing platform in China, according to AutoX.

However unlike Baidu, AutoX is not relying on 5G teleoperations to monitor its robotaxi fleet. The company's Chief Executive, Xiao Jianxiong, has concerns about current 5G technology being used as a fail-safe backup for its autonomous vehicles.

"We think with current communications infrastructure, remote control brings safety issues as 5G signals are not stable yet and hackers might attack the vehicles," Jianxiong told Reuters last week.

To further support autonomous driving development in China, in May, Baidu opened what it calls the world's largest "Intelligent Vehicle Infrastructure Cooperative System (IVICS). The comprehensive test site is called "Apollo Park" and is designed to support the development of autonomous vehicles, as well as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology, which allows vehicles to communicate with each other and urban infrastructure, such as traffic lights. 

Baidu said Apollo Park can support all of the functions associated with self-driving vehicles and connected cars, including cloud computing for analyzing big data.

The test site is located in the Beijing Economic-Technological Development Area (Yizhuang Development Zone) in the southeast part of China's capital. Apollo Park covers an area of 13,500-square-meter (145,000 square feet) and deploys over 200 autonomous vehicles.

Baidu is also developing autonomous buses. Baidu Apollo unveiled its level 4 autonomous bus called a "Robus" in September.

Baidu's Robus is just over 19 feet in length and is outfitted with Level 4 autonomous driving technologies. The bus is equipped with four LiDARs, two millimeter-wave radars and seven monocular cameras, and can accommodate up to 19 passengers. The bus was jointly developed by Baidu Apollo and Chinese bus manufacturer King Long.

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