Never heard of Baidu? You will, and soon. Known as the “Google of China,” is a huge company that is pushing at the boundaries of many digital frontiers, including autonomous driving systems. Baidu has just announced its Apollo project, a three year effort which the company says will provide “a complete hardware and software service solution that includes a vehicle platform, hardware platform, software platform and cloud data services. 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.”
Open source? The world’s biggest tech companies and automakers are working feverishly to bring autonomous driving cars to market. The search for talent has brought out lots of sharp elbows. Waymo is suing Uber. Tesla recently sued former employee Sterling Anderson. But Baidu is going to make its technology accessible to anyone? What’s that all about?
It is about putting China in a position to dominate self driving systems says The Register, an online news source based in the UK. It is also about moving the process forward more quickly than possible if every company has to do their own R&D. “Auto manufacturers no longer need to tie themselves up in the development of autonomous driving technology, but can work with Baidu to gradually learn to conduct more sophisticated tasks. This also helps avoid industry duplication,” a company spokesperson says. “Overlapping and repetitive efforts to invest in autonomous driving is not efficient or beneficial to the quick development of the industry.”
“Baidu hopes to level the playing field, helping Chinese automakers in particular compete with Audi, BMW, GM, and other big names toying with robo-vehicles,” claims The Register. Baidu say its Apollo project is “particularly suitable for the Chinese automotive industry, where there are many large brands who don’t have the ability to develop their own autonomous driving technology, which would mean that within five to ten years they would already be too far behind.” Baidu says it will gradually “introduce fully autonomous driving capabilities on highways and open city roads over time by 2020.”
Baidu also has its eyes on the world market. It just announced a partnership with Germany electronics giant Bosch to develop better mapping capabilities, and another with Harman to build a virtual assistant inside cars. While Baidu says its system will be open source, it hasn’t said yet what the licensing requirements might be. Tesla has made its Supercharger patents available to anyone who wants to use them, but in exchange it wants access to certain proprietary information from those it is sharing with. So far, no one has taken Tesla up on its offer.