When it comes to autonomous vehicles, Tesla gets a lot of the attention. People watching the industry also know about Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google) and maybe Argo.ai and Cruise. To know about much else, you’d have to be either a superfan of autonomous vehicles, work in the industry, or write about the industry. But, it’s also easy to forget that the United States isn’t the only place where people are working on autonomous vehicles.
There’s a reason that we forget, and it’s largely because the US has a lot of history when it comes to autonomous vehicle development. One noteworthy moment was in 1997, when a specially-prepared section of Interstate 15 in California was used to show off driverless vehicles. Another well-known moment was the DARPA Grand Challenges in 2004, 2005, and 2007. Many of today’s best efforts can be traced back to the teams who faced off to win that prize money.
One really strange thing in public attitudes toward technology is that we trust companies we perceive as innovative to also be great at things that are outside of their experience. For example, we think Google, which started out being great at giving us relevant search results in our browsers, would naturally do autonomous vehicles well, because both things involve computers. We trust Tesla, which was mostly great at putting electric vehicles into production, to also do autonomous vehicles well. These things used to be out of both companies’ lanes, but they’re not well inside them.
For that kind of consumer trust to develop, we have to know the company well. While nearly every American and most people in other countries would know what Google, Yahoo, and even MSN is (mostly because that last one is the default page for the default browser), few know what Baidu is. But in China, Baidu is used by around three-quarters of the population. So, globally speaking, Baidu is an important part of the internet.
And, like Google, it has been investing its profits from search engine success into a variety of other computer science projects. One of these projects is Apollo, aka Apolong or 阿波龙. Starting in 2017, Baidu not only started working on autonomous vehicles itself, but opened its source code to a variety of partners globally to develop the software and associated hardware. Since then, Baidu has been increasing testing and development, today offering taxi services in dozens of Chinese cities.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when it released a new autonomous vehicle, but I have to admit that Baidu wasn’t anywhere near top of mind when it came to autonomous vehicles. But whether we knew about it or not, it is a big player now and is only getting bigger with its first vehicle.
Baidu & Geely’s New Car
Baidu’s big advantage entering the autonomous vehicle scene has been software and computer hardware, but the company didn’t want to get into automotive manufacturing and experience the kind of struggles Tesla did as a new entrant into an already crowded and settled industry. So, it partnered with Geely (pronounced with a G as in “grape”, and not G as in “gut”). The resulting partnership is now called JIDU (集度), with the “Gee” from Geely spelled out as “JI” (because that fits today’s “pin yin” standards for using Roman letters to spell Chinese words) combined with the “DU” from Baidu. But, they used a different character for the “Ji” part, to make the new name mean “concentration.”
JIDU’s car was built from the ground up to be a fully autonomous vehicle. It has a steering wheel, but it folds away under the dash to make for more interior room when it drives itself. It has extra LED lights, arranged in matrix patterns, to better communicate with other road users. It also has voice recognition to not only give the vehicle commands, but to also let people in and around the vehicle know things they need to know. This is shown at the end of the above video, with the car saying “我是 Robo One” (Mandarin for “I am Robo One”).
While we’re approaching Knight Rider territory (but without Mr. Feeny’s voice), the car was also built to be a decent car when you want to take the controls yourself. While most autonomous vehicle projects, like you’d see from Argo.ai or Waymo, there are large, funny-looking sensors poking out all over the place. With the Robo-01, such sensors can fold away, and end up behind closed doors like a gas cap. So, it’s a car you could feel less self-conscious about manually driving up to a social event. But this is also a safety feature, as folding up sensors before an accident involving a pedestrian (at least those that can’t be avoided) can minimize injury.
Whether you’re driving or letting Robo One drive himself, you’re going to have a lot of comfort and technology at your disposal. Comfortable “zero gravity” seats, an advanced infotainment system, and a huge display that extends across the whole dashboard all show off JIDU’s high-tech and luxurious chops.
“The Intelligent Car 3.0 Era is the era of robocars,” said Xia Yiping, CEO of JIDU. “The transition to this new era is marked by the shift of driving power from humans to AI, with robocars ultimately achieving self-generating progress led by AI. The automotive industry in the 3.0 era will see a seismic shift from a revolution in energy to a revolution in product attributes. The ultimate goal is to realize a fully driverless transportation experience. The JIDU robocar aims to meet users’ needs for intelligent travel, in-car intelligent assistance and intelligent cabin in the new era.”
JIDU’s press release says that the final production vehicle will come in the fall, and be at least 90% similar to this concept vehicle. If you’re in China, there’s a second model also coming out at this year’s Guangzhou Auto Show.
There’s no word on when we can expect to meet Robo One in the United States, but either he or someone like him will eventually show up on US roads, according to my contact at Baidu. They’re already conducting some testing operations in California after getting authorization earlier this year from the state. Just look for an SUV that says “apollo” on the side in Sunnyvale to meet one of Robo One’s cousins.
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