Baidu launches Project Apollo in auto unification long-shot

Baidu has launched Project Apollo, in a move to unite the automotive industry around its portfolio of autonomous driving technologies – including a software platform, hardware designs, and reference vehicles. However, the fairly insular approaches of automakers means that there is unlikely going to be much of a clamor to jump on board Apollo.

The goal of Apollo is to provide an open software platform to its partners in the autonomous driving industry, so that they can develop their own driving systems based on Baidu’s reference design. Baidu believes its “robust, mature, and secure autonomous driving technology” can provide similar potential benefits as the Apollo lunar program, from which Baidu borrowed the name to convey its belief in the transformative impact of autonomous vehicles.

The system is intended to be offered as an open platform for OEMs to adopt, but Baidu plans to monetize it by controlling the API layers for mapping and machine-learning. So while most of the Apollo platform is free, you’re going to have to pay to access the required upper-layer functions.

But Detroit doesn’t seem to enjoy its rivalry with the Silicon Valley upstarts, preferring a much more gradual development process than the likes of Tesla and Uber are willing to tolerate. On this basis, we don’t see Detroit rushing into bed with a Chinese firm, especially as the US motor companies are already competing with domestic Chinese brands for sales in China.

A similar response from the European automakers seems likely, largely because the current ethos among automakers is to create an in-house system for self-driving vehicles, before trying to come together as an industry in a standardization process.

As such, Baidu is right in saying that it’s one of the first companies to open up its platform for collaboration – but we think describing itself as a ‘major player’ is a little pre-emptive. While the company certainly has huge amounts of cash behind it, with a US market cap of around $60bn, it hasn’t done much yet in the automotive space.

But that’s where Apollo comes in. Baidu says it will open up the source code for its obstacle perception, trajectory planning, vehicle control, vehicle operating systems, and a complete set of testing tools. These are all technologies that will have been developed in partnership with the likes of BAIC, BYD, and Chery – Chinese automakers that Baidu has collaborated with. Notably, Baidu and BMW’s development agreement fell apart, with BMW citing different strategies as the cause.

Baidu seems much better placed to become the platform of choice for the Chinese automakers that don’t have the budgets to develop an alternative on their own dime. The Western auto markets are a lot more consolidated, which is why there’s more independent work from companies with enough cash to fund internal projects, but domestic interest looks set to be the first adopter for Apollo.

Baidu holds a Californian testing permit for its self-driving designs, but has also completed several successful tests in Beijing and Wuzhen. In terms of the roadmap for Apollo, it says it plans to launch its partnership alliance, before opening its tech in a ‘restricted environment’ in July. The next step will see it share its simpler self-driving tech by the end of the year, and then gradually increasing the available complexity – culminating in fully autonomous driving on public roads in 2020.

BAIC and Baidu announced a strategic partnership to develop an SAE Level 3 capable vehicle, back in January, which is due to demonstrate the fruits of their labor at the Shanghai Auto Show, followed by public-road testing throughout 2017. BAIC is providing its some of its OEM solutions to Baidu here, including its CoDriver, MapAuto, and CarLife software – the last of which is apparently used by 700,000 car owners as a smartphone integration system for IVIs.

The other big name involved with Baidu is Nvidia, the GPU maker that has been turning its head towards automotive applications via its software and Drive PX hardware. Announced back in September, the pair said they would work on a cloud platform for Level 3 self-driving vehicles, combining Nvidia’s compute power with Baidu’s mapping technology to create an operating system for these vehicles.

It seems unlikely that some of this technology hasn’t made its way into Apollo, and we have reached out to Nvidia to confirm this. The pair also announced this week that Nvidia’s deep learning platform is now available to Baidu Cloud customers, using Nvidia’s Tesla P40 GPUs and software. Nvidia now claims that its deep learning framework is the world’s most adopted platform for building AI services too.

Qi Lu, Baidu’s COO, said “China is the world’s largest market for automotive sales and production. It has many car brands and an open environment that is ripe for collaboration. Baidu took the initiative to open our technology to the industry in order to encourage greater innovation and opportunities. An open, innovative industry ecosystem initiated by Baidu will accelerate the development of autonomous driving in the US and other developer automotive markets.”