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Baidu seeks to develop industry chain for autonomous driving

Photo: Baidu

Baidu is intensifying efforts to expand the scale of its ambitious autonomous driving project by aligning with a world-renowned automobile parts supplier, as the Chinese Internet company aims to put automakers, components and parts suppliers as well as technology firms under one umbrella.

Last week, Baidu, the operator of the largest search engine in China, and Germany's ZF Friedrichshafen AG, a global leader in driveline and chassis technology as well as active and passive safety technology, built a strategic partnership to work together to develop extensive technological solutions for unmanned driving in China, marking the entry of a world-renowned automobile parts supplier into Baidu's autonomous driving project named Apollo. The Apollo project, which has attracted more than 50 partners including Daimler, Ford, Microsoft and a number of research institutions since its establishment in April, is committed to providing its ecosystem partners with an open, comprehensive and safe software platform to integrate vehicles with hardware systems to build a complete self-driving system.

The strategic partnership between Baidu and ZF will result in a win-win cooperation, in which the two partners will share their self-driving knowhow under the framework of the Apollo technology alliance.

According to the agreement signed last week, ZF will contribute its ZF ProAI, a vehicle control system the German automobile parts supplier develops with Nvidia, a world leader in visual computing, while Baidu will share its expertise in artificial intelligence, big data and cloud-based service solutions as well as the key autonomous driving technology for high-precision maps.

ZF Chief Executive Officer Stefan Sommer described the information offered by Baidu as "fundamental" for the technologies applied to autonomous driving, which can be merged with other data from Car-to-X communication through the ZF ProAI vehicle control system. Car-to-X is a safety system which allows vehicles to share information on road conditions.

Baidu made a similar move last month, when it agreed to provide domestic carmaker Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Group (JAC) with comprehensive self-driving solutions for high-precision maps, auto positioning, environmental perception, decision-making and planning in a deal, under which the two partners will jointly develop a self-driving production car equipped with the Level 3 autonomy, which allows a car to drive itself on the highway only in certain circumstances.

JAC is reportedly the first automaker to clearly express willingness to develop self-driving production cars with Baidu, with which the automaker will conduct follow-up research and development of other self-driving technologies like automatic braking. It is a milestone for Baidu given that its partnership with German automaker BMW to jointly develop self-driving cars came to a premature end last year largely due to alleged divergences on who would take the leadership in the cooperation.

Since 2013, Baidu has increased investment in the development of self-driving system. And the recent inclusion of the German automobile parts supplier ZF into the Apollo project indicates that Baidu is aiming to create a whole industry chain for autonomous driving, amid lingering concerns that few car producers would be willing to share their resources and vehicle data related to autonomous driving.

Rivalry with Western-led technology alliance

However, Baidu's Apollo project is not the world's only platform focused on autonomous driving.

BMW, the German automaker which ended the contract with Baidu to jointly develop self-driving cars in 2016, teamed up with American technology giant 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, to create a technology alliance in the same year. The three companies intend to align the industry on an open, standards-based platform, and plan to bring solutions for highly and fully automated driving into series production by 2021.

The Western-led alliance is now considering the introduction of automakers from China, after adding Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to the alliance in August. FCA is the first automaker to join BMW, Intel and Mobileye's alliance.

At a news briefing last week, Xu Weijie, market director for China of the Automated Driving Group at Intel, hailed the technology alliance created by BMW, Intel and Mobileye 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.

The primary requirement for an applicant to be admitted into the technology alliance is that the resources it wants to share must be technologically complementary with other members, according to Xu, who likened Baidu's Apollo project to a platform in the nascent stage, where the members currently have no clear idea about their respective responsibilities. "It (Apollo) is more like an ecosystem (at present)," said Xu.

"Baidu's Apollo plan puts more emphasis on software and high-precision maps. It is a way of cooperation and will have no conflict with our alliance," said Xu. Intel is a member of Apollo and has recently completed the acquisition of Mobileye in a $15.3 billion deal.

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