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China's Baidu is Building an Entire ‘Mobility as a Service' Ecosystem Around Autonomous Vehicles

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【Summary】With Baidu's recent IPO in Hong Kong, the Chinese internet services company is poised to become a major player in the future of mobility, just like many of the new startups are trying to do by merging with SPACs to launch IPO’s in order to raise new capital from investors. The tech giant aims to be one of the world’s first companies to scale and commercialize autonomous driving technology in China, which is the world’s largest auto market.

Eric Walz    Mar 24, 2021 1:00 PM PT
China's Baidu is Building an Entire ‘Mobility as a Service' Ecosystem Around Autonomous Vehicles
Baidu launched a robotaxi service in China called "Apollo Go" using a fleet of self-driving vehicles.

A majority of the recent high-profile special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deals in the U.S. involve companies looking to disrupt the auto industry with electric or self-driving vehicle technology, including lidar startups competing to supply the laser perception technology to the world's automakers.

Now the next major IPO comes from outside the U.S. however, as China's internet services giant Baidu Inc. launched its IPO in Hong Kong on March 23. 

With Baidu's recent IPO in Hong Kong, the company is poised to become a major player in the future of mobility, just like many of the new startups are trying to do by merging with SPACs to launch IPO's in order to raise capital from investors.

The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong (SEHK) is one of the financial power centers of the world economy, and a listing in Hong Kong can lead to a massive influx of new capital. As of the end of 2020, the SEHK included 2,538 listed companies with a combined market capitalization of roughly HK$47 trillion.

For the past several years, Baidu has been working on advanced self-driving vehicle technology as part of its Apollo open development platform in addition to its core internet related businesses. The tech giant aims to be one of the world's first companies to scale and commercialize autonomous driving technology in China, which is the world's largest auto market.

Baidu's recent investments include building its Apollo Computing Unit (ACU) for self-driving cars, self-driving robotaxis, HD Maps, advanced driver assist systems (ADAS), autonomous parking features, 5G connected vehicle technology and autonomous buses.  

All of these technologies are valuable for the future of mobility, but are also valuable to automakers that don't have all of the resources to develop it on their own. For Baidu this could represent a huge opportunity to license its technology to others. Here's a closer look at some of Baudi's work in the mobility space.

Baidu's Apollo Go Business Strategy

Robotaxis are a hot topic in the mobility space today. One day commuters will be able to summon a self-driving shuttle to pick them up and take them wherever they need to go hassle-free. Baidu's autonomous robotaxis will help alleviate China's traffic woes. 

Baidu has been actively working on autonomous vehicles over the past several years for its planned "Apollo Go" transportation service. The company is leading the development of robotaxis in China with the higher number of licensed vehicles deployed as well as the highest number of miles driven in testing.

As of Dec 2020, Baidu received 199 autonomous driving licenses in China for its autonomous vehicles. In the U.S., Baidu also received a permit from the state of California in January to test self-driving cars in Silicon Valley without a driver behind the wheel.

Launching a commercial transportation service that offers the highest level of safety and convenience for customers could lead to new revenue streams in the future for Baidu.

Baidu was the first company in China to pick up passengers in autonomous vehicles when it first opened its "Apollo Go" transportation service to the public in April 2020. Riders in some parts of China can summon one of the company's Apollo Go robotaxis using Baidu Maps or the Apollo Go smartphone app.

Baidu says it is currently operating robotaxi services in Beijing, Changsha and Cangzhou. The company currently has 14 pick-up and drop-off stations in Beijing, which are approved and opened to the public.

The name Apollo Go comes from Baidu's "Apollo" open autonomous driving platform designed to foster innovation and speed up the development of autonomous driving and related technologies by collaborating with industry partners. 

Since launching in 2017, Apollo's development work has grown significantly. Baidu is working with nearly 200 industry partners as part of the open Apollo project, including automakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen, and hardware manufacturers Intel and Nvidia.

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An Apollo Go autonomous bus on display at an exhibition in Guangzhou, China in Aug 2020. (Photo: Li Zhihao/ for China Daily)

The Apollo Go service will eventually expand outside to around 100 pick-up and drop-off stations throughout Beijing, covering residential and business areas in Yizhuang, Haidian, and Shunyi districts in the near future, Baidu said. With the planned expansion, Baidu will be the only company with robotaxi pilot operations in multiple cities across China.

Some additional smart vehicle technology that Baidu is currently working on is an automated driving assistance solution for passenger vehicles called Apollo Navigation Pilot (ANP), as well as automated valet parking (AVP) parking solutions.

To fully support an ecosystem of autonomous vehicles that can communicate with other vehicles, Baidu is developing an entire transportation ecosystem to connect and support all of its autonomous driving and connected vehicle technologies. 

In early February, Baidu launched a multi-modal autonomous driving MaaS (mobility as a service) platform as part of Apollo Go that will provide AI-powered transportation services in Guangzhou. Baidu says its the world's first autonomous MaaS platform.

The MaaS platform will use a fleet of Apollo Robotaxis and autonomous buses that allows users to order smart transport services on demand. The implementation of both Baidu Apollo and its ACE Transportation Engine will further support the commercialization of the platform. 

Baidu's ACE Transportation Engine is a full-stack solution to help cities in China build intelligent transportation systems, which includes autonomous and 5G connected vehicles. More than ten cities in China have implemented the engine, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Chongqing.

Baidu partnered with the Guangzhou Huangpu District government on the roll out of its multi-modal Apollo Go MaaS platform. It comprises over 40 autonomous vehicles of all types, including Robotaxis, Robobus autonomous buses and its smaller Apolong shuttle. 

Using the service, riders are able to make reservations on the Baidu Maps and Apollo Go mobile app to summon an autonomous vehicle. Baidu Apollo has established over 50 Robotaxi pickup stations in the district, providing users with convenient access to the MaaS platform.

In total, the Apollo Go service encompasses a road network of about 700 kilometers in China, with nearly 100 pick-up and drop-off stations covering residential and business areas in Yizhuang, Haidian, and Shunyi districts.

"With our technology and platform advantages, we will contribute more to the development of autonomous driving and smart transportation in Beijing and support the city to become a world-leading AI innovation hub," said Zhenyu Li, Corporate Vice President of Baidu and General Manager of its Intelligent Driving Group (IDG), when the service launched in Sept 2020.

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The launch of Apollo Go Robotaxi service last year marks the next stage of autonomous driving development for Baidu in Beijing. The road tests will contribute to the research and development stage leading to more wide scale deployment in other cities China.

For all of the technology to work seamlessly, Baidu is also working to connect vehicles to each other using an ultra-fast cellular network. 

The 5G enabled vehicle communications technology is referred to as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X), allowing vehicles to communicate with nearby vehicles, traffic lights, buildings or with embedded sensors in the roadway. The technology can help make roads safer by alerting other vehicles in real-time about current road conditions. 

A year ago, Baidu received a government contract to build a 20 square kilometer autonomous vehicle testing site within the Chinese municipality of Chongqing. The site will test how connected or autonomous vehicles will communicate with their surroundings in the future using 5G networks. The city of Chongqing with 30 million residents plans to be a leader in smart city technology powered by 5G networks.    

The test region will be fully equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology with 5G networks. Baidu plans to build road infrastructure with embedded sensors, traffic signal control systems, as well as the infrastructure to support new technologies, such as edge computing and data sharing capabilities. The roadside devices will be connected to Baidu's own secure cloud platform.

With all of Baidu's advanced technology poised to transform mobility in the future, the final piece is building electric vehicles that are supported by all of the combined technologies, and that's now happening.

Earlier this month, Baidu announced plans to build smart electric vehicles with a new EV company with Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group (Geely), the parent company of Swedish automaker Volvo Cars. Geely is one of China's best-selling automotive brands and will contribute its expertise in automobile design and manufacturing at scale.

The joint venture EV company of Baidu and Geely is an unprecedented combination in the global auto industry. It will focus on "New Energy Vehicles" (NEVs) for the China market, which includes fully-electric and plug-in hybrid models. 

The first vehicle built by the new EV company could be on the road within three years.

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