While self-driving vehicle testing in the US (particularly with Tesla vehicles) gets a lot of our attention, we also like to keep an eye out for developments in other places, like China. In what’s being called a “world’s first”, Baidu, the “Google of China”, has secured permits to offer fully driverless commercial ride-hailing services in two Chinese cities.
“This is a huge qualitative change,” said Wei Dong, vice president and safety operations director of Baidu’s Smart Driving Group. “Completely driverless cars offering rides on open roads to paying customers means we have finally arrived at the moment the industry has been waiting for. We believe these permits are a key step on the road to the inflection point, when the industry can finally deploy fully autonomous driving services at scale.
In two of China’s biggest megacities, Chongqing and Wuhan, Baidu‘s self-driving transportation service Apollo Go is now allowed to take fares for robotaxi rides — entirely without a human driver in the vehicle — thanks to permits. Authorities show great confidence in the strength of Baidu’s self-driving technology among regulators as self-driving vehicles continue to grow across China. In addition, the announcement of a partnership with Didi Chuxing is an important step for the future of transport in China, paving the way for a generalization of driverless VTC in the country.
Baidu’s robotaxis had to go through many phases of testing and licensing, starting with a security operator in the driver’s seat, through testing with a security operator in the passenger seat, and finally receiving permission to operate without a driver or human operator inside.
Baidu has obtained permits from local governments in Wuhan and Yongchuan District in Chongqing. Both cities have been on the cutting edge in recent years, both developing infrastructure and updating new rules for AVs.
Baidu has received the necessary permits and will start providing fully driverless robotaxi services in designated areas in Wuhan from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and in Chongqing from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with five 5th generation Apollo robots circulating in every city. In Wuhan Economic and Technological Development Zone, the service area is 13 square kilometers, while in Chongqing’s Yongchuan District, it is 30 square kilometers.
Baidu’s self-driving vehicles are the first in China to obtain a variety of permits from two megacities, including Google’s Waymo and Uber. The autonomous driving system, monitoring redundancy, remote driving capability and a strong security operating system, all of which are backed by a huge data repository containing real data collected by Baidu’s AVs over 32 million kilometers (about 20 million miles), give them multi-layered mechanisms to ensure ultimate security.
Baidu said that as of the end of March 2022, it had obtained the first place in China for the cumulative number of autonomous driving patent applications, with 4,000. Among them, there are more than 1,500 global driving patent families. high-level autonomy in the world. Apollo Go has already expanded to all top-tier cities in China and is now the world’s largest robotaxi service provider, having recently reached one million orders.
Here is a video of the service in action:
Learn more about Baidu’s future Robotaxis
Baidu’s main advantage in the autonomous vehicle industry has been software and hardware, but the company didn’t want to get involved in car manufacturing, which is why Tesla struggled as a new entrant. in an already crowded and established market.
So Baidu partnered with Geely (pronounced GEE-lee with ag for giraffe, not g for gut). The resulting collaboration is now known as JIDU (JI-du), which combines Geely’s “Gee” with Baidu’s “DU”. But, they used a different character for the “Ji” part, so the new name means “concentration”.
The LIDU was designed from the ground up to be a completely autonomous vehicle. It has a steering wheel, but it folds under the dash when driving to make more interior space. It has additional LED lights, arranged in matrix patterns, to better communicate with other road users. It also includes voice recognition software that allows it to not only give commands to the car, but also tell people in and around the vehicle everything they need to know. At the end of the video, when the car says “I am Robo One” (in Mandarin), it’s a reminder that this is just one way to operate an unmanned vehicle.
The vehicle was also designed to be a practical automobile when you want to drive it yourself, according to the company. Whereas most self-driving vehicle projects, like Argo.ai or Waymo, include big, fun sensors that stick out everywhere. Such sensors can fold up and be hidden behind closed doors in the Robo-01, much like a gas cap would.
So it’s a vehicle you’d be less embarrassed to manually drive to a social gathering. But it’s also a safety measure, because folding the sensors before an accident involving a pedestrian (at least ones that can’t be avoided) can help protect people from harm.
“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 completely driverless transportation experience.JIDU robocar aims to meet users’ needs for intelligent travel, assistance smart car and smart cabin in the new era.”
According to my contact at Baidu, we may eventually meet Robo One in the US, but it’s unclear if he or someone like him will be coming to US roads. They have already begun some testing operations in California after receiving state regulatory clearance earlier this year. Look for an SUV with the word “apollo” on the side in Sunnyvale that belongs to one of Robo One’s parents.
Either way, we are likely to see Baidu become one of the dominant players in global autonomous vehicles in the years to come.
Featured image provided by Baidu.
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