At a recent developer’s conference in Beijing, Chinese Internet giant Baidu described its plans and timetable for its self-driving car technology. Its timeline for introducing fully autonomous driving capabilities on city roads aims at 2020, while announcing that driving tests in restricted environments will start immediately.
Baidu is making its autonomous car software open source in the same way that Google released its Android operating system for smartphones. By encouraging companies to build upon the system and share their results, it hopes to overtake rivals such as Google/Waymo, Tencent, Alibaba and others researching self-driving technology. The software currently available to outside developers is relatively simple: it can record the behavior of a car being driven by a person and then play that back in autonomous mode. The cloud services being developed by Baidu include mapping services, a simulation platform, a security framework, and Baidu’s DuerOS voice-interface technology. The company named its program “Apollo”, after NASA’s historical moon landing program, and also unveiled a list of cooperative partners – a consortium of 50+ public and private entities – compiled to help Baidu reach its ultimate goal; conquer the US. Baidu’s plan is to get those vehicles primarily on the roads in China, which the world’s biggest auto market, with the hope that the same technology, embedded in exported Chinese vehicles, can eventually take over in the United States.
As TheRobotReport points out, Baidu’s Apollo has a significant advantage over Google’s Waymo: Baidu has a presence in the United States, whereas Alphabet has none in China because Google closed down its search site in 2010 rather than give in to China’s internet censorship. Baidu was one of the first of the Chinese companies to set up in Silicon Valley, initially to tap into SV’s talent pool. Today it is the center of a “China network” of almost three dozen firms, through investments, acquisitions and partnerships. China has set a goal for 10 to 20 percent of vehicles to be highly autonomous by 2025, and for 10 percent of cars to be fully self-driving in 2030, thus we are going to witness a true and tough race to develop self-driving technology and have fully automated vehicles released in the Chinese market during the next decade.