Baidu is doing what Apple should have done but didn’t — build a Level 4 autonomous driving platform to sell to vehicle manufacturers. The Chinese company has been developing its self-driving platform called Apollo for the past several years but has no desire to manufacture vehicles. So far, it has 116 clients for Apollo, including Jaguar Land Rover, Valeo, Byton, Leopard Imaging, and Suning Logistcs.
At its annual AI developer conference, Baidu Create 2018, it introduced version 3 of the Apollo platform, which is incorporated into an electric autonomous bus called Apolong, manufactured for Baidu by King Long at its manufacturing facility in Xiamen. Baidu founder and CEO Robin Li hosted a live stream for the 6,000 people in attendance at the conference of the 100th Apolong rolling off the assembly line.
According to Tech Crunch, Baidu plans to launch an autonomous bus service in several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shenzhen, Pingtan, and Wuhan. It is also partnering with SB Drive, the autonomous driving subsidiary of SoftBank Group, to bring Apolong autonomous mini buses to Japan early next year. Each bus can seat up to 14 passengers. The buses will be used first in geofenced areas such as tourist spots and airports.
“2018 marks the first year of commercialization for autonomous driving. From the volume production of Apolong, we can truly see that autonomous driving is making great strides, taking the industry from zero to one, “Robin Li said during his keynote address. Apollo 3.0 includes new software that supports valet parking, autonomous mini buses like Apolong, and autonomous microcars. The company says its autonomous driving platform is compatible with self-driving computers from Nvidia, Intel, NXP, and Renesas.
Ultimately, Baidu’s objective is to become the largest supplier of self-driving technology to the automotive sector. It doesn’t want to make vehicles. It wants to make the self-driving platform that will make autonomous cars popular in the near future. The fact that one of its clients is Jaguar Land Rover is interesting, since Waymo has placed an order for 20,000 self-driving I-PACE SUVs that will be outfitted with Waymo’s proprietary self-driving system. Does that suggest some possible linkage between Baidu and Waymo? No such tie-in has been mentioned publicly, but it is an intriguing thought.