Baidu is releasing much of the technology behind its self-driving car, a move that it hopes will fast-track the technology’s progress while cementing the company’s role in supplying key elements such as mapping and machine-learning systems.
Most of the companies developing automated driving carefully guard the technology and expertise behind their systems, as a series of legal battles between competitors highlight. Baidu’s move could perhaps lead to a more open effort and lower the bar for developing advanced driver-assist systems as well as self-driving prototypes.
“We see a lot of reinventing the wheel,” says Qi Lu, president and chief operating officer of Baidu and general manager of the company’s Intelligent Driving Group. “Let’s innovate at a higher level.”
Baidu will release its self-driving platform—known as “Apollo,” in honor of the U.S. moon missions—this July. While much of the technology required to develop a self-driving car will be made freely available, certain features, which Lu says will include some mapping and machine-learning services, will be accessible through an application programming interface that Baidu will control.
It remains to be seen whether Baidu’s move will blow open the market for automated-driving technology. As important as control and sensor software are, the most valuable component of any self-driving system may be the data amassed through testing on real roads. And Baidu has done less testing than some other companies, especially Google.
But the decision makes sense given the nature of China’s domestic car market, which is also the largest auto market in the world. Besides established foreign companies, there are dozens of small carmakers in China, and they lack the resources to develop their own self-driving vehicles. By providing the technology for these manufacturers, Baidu could establish itself as the supplier of the brains for these rapidly growing companies, and it might be able to benefit from the data they collect through testing.
Baidu’s move is somewhat reminiscent of Google’s decision to release Android, a free operating system for smartphones, starting in 2008. Android is now the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, and although Google makes it available for free, it serves to drive users to the company’s various mobile apps and services.
Baidu is one of China’s leading tech companies, with a deep bench of AI and machine-learning talent in China and Silicon Valley. The company invested heavily in AI after hiring Andrew Ng, then a leading AI researcher at Google, to lead the effort in 2014. Ng recently announced he was leaving the company to explore new opportunities.
Baidu began developing self-driving vehicles in 2015, and it gave MIT Technology Review an exclusive sneak peek shortly before publicly announcing the project (see “Baidu’s Self-Driving Car Takes on Beijing Traffic”). The company has been testing autonomous vehicles since then on the streets of Beijing and in Wuzhen, a town not far from Shanghai.
The company hopes that giving away some of its technology will help it cement its position. “The fundamental motivation is [to create] an open ecosystem that will accelerate the pace of innovation toward fully autonomous driving, which will have profound changes to our society,” Lu says.