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China's Baidu Unveils a Level-5 Robocar With No Steering Wheel & Gull-Wing Doors That ‘Moves, Communicates & Learns'

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【Summary】​China’s tech giant Baidu Inc held its annual "Baidu World 2021" conference on Wednesday and once again revealed some of its advanced work on AI and autonomous driving. Among the highlights, Baidu Co-founder and CEO Robin Li unveiled his vision for mobility of the future in the form of a futuristic “robocar” designed to make autonomous vehicles more accessible to the broader public.

Eric Walz    Aug 18, 2021 1:45 PM PT
China's Baidu Unveils a Level-5 Robocar With No Steering Wheel & Gull-Wing Doors That ‘Moves, Communicates & Learns'
Baidu's futuristic robocar is designed to make autonomous vehicles more accessible to the broader public.

China's tech giant Baidu Inc held its annual Baidu World 2021 conference on Wednesday and once again revealed some of its advanced work on AI and autonomous driving.

Among the highlights, Baidu Co-founder and CEO Robin Li unveiled his vision for mobility of the future in the form of a futuristic "robocar" designed to make autonomous vehicles more accessible to the broader public. 

Li also announced a new robotaxi app called "Luobo Kuaipao" aimed at commercializing autonomous driving at scale. Baidu says its robocar is capable of level 5 autonomous driving, meaning that no human intervention is ever required.

The robocar is definitely unique. The over design of the robocar is bold and a dramatic break from traditional vehicle designs, with no steering wheel, pedals or other controls for a human operator.

The robocar features automated gull-wing doors and a transparent glass roof to make the interior feel more spacious for passengers. Each vehicle includes a suite of external sensors for safe navigation on public streets. 

For passenger comfort, the interior features zero-gravity seats, a large curved intelligent display and control pad. 

Other features include voice and facial recognition and advanced AI technology. The robocar can analyze the internal and external surroundings and make predictive suggestions to proactively serve the needs of its passengers, Baidu said.

"We believe that cars of the future will be robocars. They will drive autonomously, act as both an intelligent assistant and loyal companion, and be self-learning," said Li, as he unveiled the robocar with Level-5 autonomous driving capabilities.

Li believes that vehicles in the future will be more like "intelligent robots" rather than passenger vehicles. Li predicts that these vehicles will move, communicate and learn using artificial intelligence. 

Li also envisions a future where vehicles expand beyond just providing transportation. He believes that robocars may one day serve as a driver, secretary, and personal assistant. These vehicles will drive autonomously, understand words, take orders and continuously learn to deliver a more personalized experience for passengers.

With these two new products, Baidu is demonstrating how its Apollo intelligent driving program is leading the way towards what Baidu calls "the era of autonomous driving 2.0", which moves the focus from technical verification to large-scale commercial operation.

Baidu, which is often referred to as the "Google of China", has been working to deploy commercial autonomous driving technology at scale as part of its open Apollo platform since 2017. The open Apollo platform is designed to speed up the development of self-driving technology through collaboration with industry partners.

Since its launch, Apollo's development work has grown significantly. Baidu is now working with over 200 industry partners, including automakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen, and hardware manufacturers Intel and Nvidia.

The Apollo platform has come to be regarded as the "Android of the Automotive Industry." It's the largest open-source autonomous driving platform in the world, according to Baidu. 

During a presentation at Auto Shanghai 2021 in April, Baidu unveiled the latest upgrades to Apollo, including plans to offer customizable autonomous driving platforms to other automakers for the commercialization of self-driving vehicles at scale. The company plans to have its Apollo intelligent driving solutions available in more than one million production vehicles in the next three to five years.

Baidu launched its commercial robotaxi service last year called "Apollo Go". With a limited launch of the service in Sept 2020, Baidu was the first company in China to pick up passengers in autonomous vehicles. It has since expanded to four cities in China.

As of the end of Q2 2021, the Baidu Apollo autonomous driving service has provided more than 400,000 rides and driven more than 8.7 million miles. 

Baidu aggressive autonomous driving plans have government support, allowing the company to rapidly expand its reach into the mobility space. Its a stark contrast to the U.S., where the entire industry is basically stuck in the technician verification stage instead of commercial deployment.

Unlike in China, there is a lack of a regulatory framework in the U.S. for the deployment of autonomous vehicles on public roads. So until then, companies like Waymo and Cruise and Zoox cannot scale their robotaxi operations in the immediate future, which essentially gives China the opportunity to become a global leader in autonomous driving technology.

"Competence in autonomous driving has become the main battleground in the competition among intelligent vehicles," said Zhenyu Li, Senior Corporate Vice President of Baidu and General Manager of Intelligent Driving Group (IDG).

Li sees the Luobo Kuaipao robotaxi app as just as important as the robocar in this early stage, allowing everyone to take part in the development and popularization of shared autonomous vehicles. It also gives the public a chance to ride in a self-driving vehicle and become more comfortable with the technology.

The learnings from Apollo Go mobility platform, which has been operating in Beijing, Guangzhou, Changsha and Cangzhou, provide Baidu with a solid foundation to scale its robotaxi services.

In addition to Baidu's new robocar, the company unveiled its Apollo Moon level-4 robotaxis in June that will eventually be used in the expanding Apollo Go service. Baidu called the Apollo Moon EV "a monumental milestone in the large-scale commercialization of fully autonomous ride-hailing services in China."

To manufacture the Apollo Moon autonomous vehicles, Baidu is partnering with Chinese automaker BAIC Group's new dedicated EV brand ARCFOX. Baidu plans to deploy 1,000 Apollo Moon robotaxis over the next three years.

IHS Markit predicted in its China's Autonomous Driving Market and Future Mobility Market Outlook that driverless robotaxi services like Apollo Go will account for 60% of China's $347 billion ride-hailing market by 2030.

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