21st-century Apollo programme putting driverless cars on streets

19 Apr 2017

Baidu’s car fleet, coming to a street near you one day. Image: Baidu

Not one to undersell itself, Baidu’s autonomous vehicles project has taken the moniker of the finest scientific achievement of the 20th century.

Baidu is opening up its autonomous driving platform for other companies to work with. Its gradual release is called Apollo, the name also given to the successful NASA moon missions.

The complete service solution on offer includes platforms for vehicle, hardware and software, as well as cloud data services.

Summer sun

Baidu, a Chinese equivalent to Google, will open Apollo for a ‘restricted environment’ this July.

It will then share its technology for cars running autonomously in simple urban road conditions towards the end of the year. Lastly, it will gradually introduce fully autonomous driving capabilities on highways and open city roads over time by 2020.

“AI has great potential to drive social development, and one of AI’s biggest opportunities is intelligent vehicles,” said Qi Lu, Baidu’s COO.

Baidu will open source code and capabilities in obstacle perception, trajectory planning, vehicle control, vehicle operating systems and other functions, as well as a complete set of testing tools.

Lu claims an open, innovative industry ecosystem will accelerate the development of autonomous driving throughout the world, just in time for what many predict is an imminent technological revolution.

“In addition, through open technology our technological achievements can be quickly applied to a wide range of fields – and accelerate even more achievements,” said Lu, adding that it was a great opportunity for talent in autonomous driving.

Over there

Autonomous vehicles are being developed in plain sight.

Nissan, BMW and Audi represent some of the more active, traditional automotive companies pumping huge resources into this field. They have been joined by Airbus, adding an aeronautical dimension with optimistic plans for ‘air taxis’, and Tesla, pioneering an electric future.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce behemoth, has been a creative force in the past two years, acquiring stakes in some companies that many expect to power the future of transport.

Then there are the tech giants Apple and Google, the most vocal proponents of autonomous vehicles and the duo most likely to be willing to pour endless amounts of money into innovations facing significantly longer lead-in times than traditionally encouraged in transport.

Baidu’s interest in the space is only a few years old, investing and researching in autonomous vehicles in 2015. It revealed its first successful road tests for its fully autonomous cars on the highways and roads of Beijing that Christmas, before shifting towards the US with vehicle testing permits in California.

Every which way

Its broad approach to emerging technologies, though, hints that Baidu knows the importance of tomorrow outweighs that of yesterday.

For example, after four years of development within its research labs, the Chinese company revealed that its AI can now handle speech synthesis with unprecedented accuracy.

In other news, Baidu’s chief scientist and AI visionary, Andrew Ng, recently announced he is to leave the tech giant for pastures new.

After joining Baidu in 2014 – in something of a coup for the company – Ng led research in areas such as facial recognition technology, healthcare chatbots and speech recognition.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic