Beijing tech giant Baidu is ramping up its self-driving car initiative. At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, it announced Apollo 3.5, the latest version of its Apollo open source driverless car platform, and took the wraps off of Apollo Enterprise, which it described as a suite of “customizable autonomous driving … solutions” for vehicle fleets. It also recommitted to launching a self-driving taxi service in Changsha, China later this year.
“With the key development of Apollo Enterprise, Baidu Apollo expands from an open source technology platform to a leading product and service provider for autonomous driving and connected vehicles,” Ya-Qin Zhang, president of Baidu, said in a statement. “We’re excited to join hands with each and every Apollo developer and enterprise partner to create safe, customizable, and scalable solutions to accelerate the commercialization of autonomous driving and enhance the mobility experience for everyone.”
This morning, Baidu revealed that Apollo — which has grown in digital footprint considerably to 400,000 lines of code, or more than double the 165,000 lines of code the company announced in January 2018 — is now being tested, contributed to, or deployed by Intel, Nvidia, NXP, and over 130 global partners. (That’s an uptick from 116 partners in July 2018.) And Baidu says that the number of developers who’ve sourced Apollo’s code from the project’s Github repository stands at 12,000, a 20 percent increase from mid-2018.
Among the growing body of collaborators is California-based Udelv, which today said it would deploy up to 100 autonomous delivery vehicles developed on Apollo 3.5 to U.S. cities in 2019, including the San Francisco Bay Area.
Other Apollo adoptees include Volvo and Ford, both of which have committed to testing Apollo-powered self-driving vehicles on Chinese roads in 2019. FAW Group, which develops the Hongqi line of luxury cars, is another close collaborator — it last year announced plans to launch a “limited number” of Apollo vehicles across China in the next year.
So what’s new in Apollo 3.5? Well, Baidu claims it’s the first open source autonomous driving platform that can “perform in complex urban and suburban driving scenarios.” Toward that end, Apollo 3.5 introduces new driving capabilities, such as the ability to complete unprotected turns (a notoriously challenging maneuver for driverless cars) and manage speed bumps, clear zones, side passes, narrow lanes, and parking.
“[Cars with Apollo 3.5 have] 360-degree visibility, along with upgraded perception algorithms to handle the changing conditions of urban roads, making the car more secure and aware,” Baidu wrote in Apollo’s recently revised readme. “Scenario-based planning can navigate through complex scenarios … and narrow streets often found in residential areas and roads with stop signs.”
Apollo 3.5 also features the Apollo Cyber RT framework, a high-performance runtime framework that’s entirely open source. (Baidu says that’s another industry first.) It’s also compatible with new lidar sensors — navigational sensors that bounce light off of objects to measure distance — such as Velodyne’s VLS-128.
Apollo Enterprise is a suite of autonomous and connected services for mass-produced cars, as Baidu explained it. It’s split into five distinct offerings:
- A highway autonomous driving solution
- An autonomous valet parking solution
- A fully autonomous driving minibus solution
- An intelligent map data service platform, with options for commercial, ADAS, and high-definition maps
- DuerOS for Apollo, a set of AI-based IoV solutions, with voice assistant, augmented reality, and motion detection capabilities.
Carmakers can pick and choose the products they want and customize them based on their specific needs, Baidu says. Additionally, thanks to Apollo Enterprise’s Over-the-Air Programming component, they can roll out new features over the air.
Baidu’s collaborating with Chinese automobile manufacturers Chery, BYD Auto, and Great Wall, in addition to Hyundai Kia, Ford, and VM Motori, to roll out Apollo Enterprise solutions to cars. It didn’t disclose any by name, but said that over 100 auto OEMs have already adopted Enterprise on 300 car models for a total install base of 12 million vehicles.
Autonomous taxi service
Baidu revealed in fall 2018 that it’d work with the city of Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province in the south-central part of China, to launch a driverless taxi service. It gave a small progress update today.
Here’s the headliner: Baidu is open-sourcing its vehicle-to-everything (V2X) Apollo Intelligent Vehicle Infrastructure Cooperative System platform, including software and reference hardware. It says the newest of these will play a part in the 2019 Changsha rollout, which will see 100 robotaxis operate on 130 miles of city roads equipped with Baidu’s V2X infrastructure.
“The era of artificial intelligence is accelerating. Whoever seizes this opportunity, develops high-quality technology, and transforms this into new kinetic energy can win the initiative,” secretary of the Changsha Municipal Party Committee Henghua Hu said of the company’s plans in October.
Baidu’s Apollo has come a long way in the roughly two years since its launch.
At the CES 2018, Baidu unveiled Apollo’s second major iteration, Apollo 2.0, which introduced new reference vehicles, an encrypted framework for over-the-air updates, improved computer vision algorithms, and a system that can better determine where a vehicle is on the road. In April 2018, it took the wraps off Apollo 2.5, which implemented improved vision-based perception, real-time relative mapping, new driving scenarios, and visual debugging tools.
Coinciding with the rollout of Apollo 2.5, Baidu launched an automotive security lab in partnership with China Automotive Technology and Research Center and China Academy of Information and Communications.
Apollo 3.0 added support for valet parking, autonomous mini buses, and autonomous microcars, and integration with Baidu’s voice-activated telematics software, which can perform facial recognition and monitor drivers for signs of fatigue. Moreover, it marked the incorporation of Intel subsidiary Mobileye‘s Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) — as a “common sense” approach to on-the-road decision-making that codifies good driving habits, like maintaining a safe following distance and giving other cars the right of way — into Apollo’s codebase.
Baidu intends to achieve “full autonomy” on highway and urban roads — that is to say, a system capable of operating in any conditions a human could — by 2020.
The firm’s nimbleness has helped it maintain lockstep with the considerable competition. Nvidia — a longtime automotive solutions supplier — this week unveiled Drive AutoPilot, a new full-stack automated driving system. A newer challenger is Japan-based Tier IV, a University of Tokyo spinout that recently raised $28 million to develop Autoware, an open source software platform for driverless cars.
Baidu, Nvidia, Tier IV, and others are racing toward a veritable goldmine of a market. Autonomous vehicles and mobility services in China are expected to be worth more than $500 billion by 2030, according to a McKinsey report, when roughly 8 million self-driving cars hit public roads.