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Baidu gears up for application for autonomous driving technologies

Baidu's recent creation of an autonomous driving fund and release of Apollo 1.5 shows the technology company's heightened interest in the development of driverless cars powered by artificial intelligence.

Last week, Baidu announced the establishment of the Apollo Fund, which will invest 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in more than 100 autonomous driving projects over the next three years.

The launch of the Apollo Fund, which will invest in laser radar, artificial intelligence chip and software algorithm, coincided with the release of Apollo 1.5, the second generation of the company's autonomous driving platform, through which third-party partners can access obstacle perception technology, cloud simulation services, high-definition maps and technology enabling cars to perform self-driving capabilities in designated lanes.

Apollo was established in April, when Baidu said the platform was intended to provide its ecosystem partners with an open, comprehensive and safe software platform to integrate vehicles with hardware systems to build a complete self-driving system. Apollo members included 70 Chinese and foreign entities from 50 members in July, with the joining of Hyundai Motor, Neousys Technology and several autonomous driving startups. Baidu plans to release Apollo 2.0 in December.

The Apollo project is an important part of Baidu's artificial intelligence strategy as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robin Li wants to make artificial intelligence as the core competitiveness of his company.

Since taking the posts of president and chief operating officer in January, Lu Qi has been seeking to transform Baidu into an artificial intelligence-first company, aiming to build the Apollo autonomous driving platform into the "Android of the auto industry".

Focus on cooperation

In 2013, Baidu's artificial intelligence team started the research on autonomous driving cars. Two years later, the team successfully tested its driverless car, a modified BMW 3 Series, on the roads in Beijing.

However, the company's executives and researchers found it hard to put such a driverless car into mass production because of the high producing costs. Wang Jin, Baidu's senior vice president and former general manager of the company's autonomous driving unit, has conceded in a public speech that the laser radar installed on Baidu's driverless car cost 500,000 yuan alone.

What's more, in order to tap the autonomous driving car market as quickly as possible, Baidu skipped to delve into the Level 4 autonomy only to find that mass production of self-driving cars characterized by the Level 4 autonomy is hard to achieve.

Autonomous driving has a grading scale. The classification begins at zero, where drivers are constantly in charge of the car's acceleration, steering and braking. It ends with Level 5, where the car does not even need a steering or a driver. Most automakers see Level 4 as the next logical step for their vehicles. At that stage, the car is almost totally in control all of the time without any human interaction and will only stop itself if there is a system failure or the conditions dictate that the human behind the wheel needs to take control.

In light of it, Baidu shifted its focus to the development of the Level 3 autonomy in 2016 in partnership with traditional automakers, with which the technology company shared its cloud computing technology and high-precision map. The Level 3 autonomy allows a car to drive itself on the highway only in certain circumstances.

In a recent interview with Caixin, Li Zhenyu, general manager of Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group, admitted his company's inability to independently develop autonomous driving cars, putting high hopes on the Apollo platform, which plays the role of integrating the industry chain under one umbrella. The collaboration with industry chain partners could be realized through sharing Baidu's expertise in areas of artificial intelligence data, algorithm and high-definition mapping, Li said in the interview.

Technological commercialization

Industry experts said that a major goal of establishing the Apollo platform is to commercialize the autonomous driving technologies Baidu has developed over the past several years.

Compared with traditional automakers adept at hardware production, Internet companies like Baidu are good at the development of the deep learning-driven artificial intelligence system, which attaches great importance to the creation of autonomous driving technologies.

Therefore, helped by the Apollo platform, Baidu can share its cloud-based services with the platform members in exchange for those partners' source codes and data.

"In the future, the Apollo platform is likely to evolve into a business mode, which would turn things on the (autonomous driving) software platform into sellable products," Li said. But Li stressed that commercialization is not the most important thing at the current stage, saying that the current task for the Apollo platform is to put the autonomous driving technologies into use.

Challenges persist

The Baidu-led Apollo platform is still facing challenges from the technology alliances established by traditional automakers.

The key rival is the technology group created by German automaker BMW, American chip producer Intel and Mobileye, a global leader in the development of computer vision and machine learning, data analysis, localization and mapping for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems and autonomous driving. The three partners plan to align the industry on an open, standards-based platform and bring solutions for highly and fully automated driving into series production by 2021.

The Western-led self-driving alliance is now considering the introduction of automakers from China, after adding Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles to the alliance in August.

The technology alliance created by BMW, Intel and Mobileye serves as a platform where all of the participants can enjoy a set of unified standards in areas from door locks to data center, with each bearing its own specific responsibilities and sharing the technologies needed for autonomous driving through patent license agreement.

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