When it comes to self-driving vehicles, Tesla is getting a lot of attention. People watching the industry are also familiar with Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and possibly Argo.ai and Cruise. To learn much more, you either have to be a super fan of self-driving 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 self-driving vehicles.
There’s a reason we forget, and it’s largely because the United States has a long history of developing self-driving vehicles. A remarkable moment took place 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 that competed to win that cash prize.
One really strange thing about the public’s attitude towards technology is that we trust companies that we perceive to be innovative to also be excellent in areas outside of their experience. For example, we think that Google, which has started to be great at giving us relevant search results in our browsers, would naturally do well with self-driving vehicles, because both things involve computers. We trust Tesla, which was especially good at putting electric vehicles into production, to do self-driving vehicles as well. These things were out of the way of both societies, but they are not well within.
For this kind of consumer trust to grow, we need to know the company well. While almost all Americans and most people in other countries know what Google, Yahoo, and even MSN is (mainly because the latter is the default browser’s default page), few know what Baidu. But in China, Baidu is used by about three quarters of the population. So overall, Baidu is an important part of the internet.
And, like Google, it invested its profits from search engine success in a variety of other IT projects. One of these projects is Apollo, aka Apolong or 阿波龙. From 2017, Baidu not only started working on self-driving vehicles, but also opened its source code to various partners around the world to develop related software and hardware. Since then, Baidu has increased testing and development, now offering taxi services in dozens of Chinese cities.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when it released a new self-driving vehicle, but I have to admit that Baidu was not in the lead at all when it comes to self-driving vehicles. But whether we know it or not, he’s a big player now and he’s only getting bigger with his first vehicle.
Baidu & Geely’s new car
Baidu’s big edge in the self-driving vehicle scene has been software and hardware, but the company didn’t want to get into auto manufacturing and experience the kind of struggles Tesla faced as a new entrant to an industry. already crowded and sedentary. Thus, he became associated with Geely (pronounced with a G as in “grape”, not G as in “gut”). The resulting partnership is now called JIDU (集度), with Geely’s “Gee” spelled as “JI” (because it matches today’s “pin yin” standards for using Roman letters for spell Chinese words) combined with Baidu’s “DU”. But, they used a different character for the “Ji” part, so the new name means “concentration”.
JIDU’s car was completely built to be a fully autonomous vehicle. It has a steering wheel, but it folds under the dash to make more interior space when driving on its own. It has additional LED lights, arranged in matrix patterns, to better communicate with other road users. It also has voice recognition to not only give commands to the vehicle, but also to let people in and around the vehicle know what they need to know. This is shown at the end of the video above, with the car saying “我是 Robo One” (Mandarin for “I am Robo One”).
As we approach Knight Rider territory (but without Mr. Feeny’s voice), the car was also designed to be a decent car when you want to take the controls yourself. While most self-driving vehicle projects, like you’d see on Argo.ai or Waymo, there are some great fun sensors popping out all over the place. With the Robo-01, these sensors can fold up and end up behind closed doors like a gas cap. So it’s a car you might feel less self-conscious about manually driving to a social event. But it’s also a safety feature, because folding the sensors in before an accident involving a pedestrian (at least ones that can’t be avoided) can minimize injuries.
Whether you drive or let Robo One drive itself, you’ll have plenty of comfort and technology at your disposal. Comfortable “zero gravity” seats, an advanced infotainment system and a huge screen that spans the entire dashboard all show JIDU’s high-tech and luxurious chops.
“The era of smart car 3.0 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 eventually making self-generating advancements led by AI. The automotive industry of the 3.0 era will see a shift seismic from an energy revolution to a product attribute revolution.The ultimate goal is to achieve a fully driverless transportation experience.JIDU robocar aims to meet users’ needs for intelligent travel, assistance smart car and smart cabin in the new era.”
JIDU’s press release indicates that the final production vehicle will arrive in the fall and will be at least 90% similar to this concept vehicle. If you’re in China, a second model will also be released at the Guangzhou Auto Show this year.
It’s unclear when we can expect to see Robo One in the US, but he or someone like him will eventually show up on US roads, according to my contact at Baidu. They are already conducting testing operations in California after obtaining state clearance earlier this year. 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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