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Baidu launches their open platform for autonomous cars–and we got to test it

By Frank Hersey

Lincoln MKZ running Apollo 1.0 (Image credit: TechNode)

Baidu has launched an autonomous driving ecosystem with 50 partners at its first AI developers conference in Beijing. At its heart is the US-developed code for controlling the vehicles, but the scope of Apollo 1.0 is to create an entire ecosystem encompassing research universities, components makers such as NVIDIA, navigation developers such as TomTom, and car manufacturers including Ford, Daimler and FAW (Volkswagen’s joint venture partner in China).

Lincoln MKZ running Apollo 1.0 (Image credit: TechNode)

The federation approach is radically different to that of the traditional manufacturers and is expected to allow more companies to participate. “It even allows a range of different business models to operate within the ecosystem,” said Baidu COO Lu Qi.

The code for Apollo 1.0 is completely open-source and will be available on Github. Documentation will be updated weekly and the code fortnightly with overhauls planned for September and December—when fully autonomous urban driving is expected to be achievable.

Baidu COO Lu Qi speaking at Create 2017 Baidu AI Developer Conference (Image credit: Baidu)

Baidu co-founder and CEO, Robin Li, introduced the new ecosystem via a live link up to his driverless car as he headed to the conference along Beijing’s fifth ring road. The 4- to 5,000-strong audience was also shown a world-first: a video of two autonomous cars driving in the same test pen (which we later experienced for ourselves).

Another important part of the plan is Apollo’s Simulator Engine. The program uses real data about roads and junctions to create a simulation for virtual cars running on Apollo. A demonstration at the conference showed a simulation of a car crashing at an intersection and then how the code would be fixed and uploaded for the Apollo team to check before being added into the overall source code. This way “. . . Apollo can be tested over millions of kilometers every day,” said Lu, who estimated around 10 billion kilometers of testing is needed for an autonomous vehicle system, meaning Apollo’s R&D will soon accelerate beyond that of the competition.

Development

“We partnered with Baidu through a mutual client of ours in Silicon Valley and Baidu talked to us about creating the base platform for the Apollo project,” Josh Whitley, a software engineer at California-based AutonomouStuff who had come to Beijing to install his company’s software on the vehicles at the conference, told TechNode. “The Lincoln MKZ that they have here, the computing platform, they’re all provided by AutonomouStuff.”

The Lincoln MKZ kitted out with sensor by AutonomouStuff for Baidu's Apollo 1.0 (Image credit: TechNode)

The Lincoln MKZ kitted out with sensor by AutonomouStuff for Baidu’s Apollo 1.0 (Image credit: TechNode)

Whitley managed to install the software on the Lincoln’s drive-by-wire system and test and tune it in just three days, a process that would normally take a dozen workers six months.

“The Apollo software is very flexible, made to accommodate different vehicles very easily. The feature set is mainly for recording a GPS-based route. [Apollo] is definitely better at a specific set of things [than other platforms],” said Whitley. “Part of the core infrastructure is a safe run-time environment—a real-time operating system—that won’t skip any commands or be delayed waiting for vehicle catch up.”

“The intent, for the Chinese market and eventually for other markets, is to make it a unified software platform for all the Chinese automakers and then others to use,” added Whitley.

Application

“China is very much about one solution in general. Think of WeChat – there’s one solution. Didi – one solution,” Lei Ma, a senior product manager of autonomous driving at Baidu, based in Silicon Valley, told TechNode. “We’re hoping that Apollo becomes that one solution for autonomy.”

According to Ma, Baidu will make no claim on any use of its source code, however, it is used: “People are free to take Apollo, modify it or not, put it on a car and say ‘we’re selling autonomous vehicles’. Baidu does not lay claim to revenue, data, intellectual property. They can take it and commercialize it, anywhere in the world… Of course, if you work with Baidu, we can make things move a lot faster.”

Standing room only as audience of 4,000 learns about the Simulator Engine (Image credit: TechNode)

Standing room only as audience of 4,000 learns about the Simulator Engine (Image credit: TechNode)

The nature of establishing an ecosystem rather than a closed garden set up means the system is expected to accelerate, according to Lu Qi: “In 3 to 5 years China will lead the world in autonomous driving.”

Baidu’s AI operating system, DuerOS, will be fundamental to the application of Apollo 1.0. “DuerOS means that Apollo could be compatible with different cars from different manufacturers, or you can build your own,” explained Lu.

Ma explained the ecosystem’s development within the China context. “Back to the ‘one solution,’ whoever creates that ecosystem—the biggest, the fastest—is going to be the single player. I personally think it’s going to be a winner takes all solution. There’ll be a first place, a second perhaps, and maybe only a very different third.”

Speaking of Didi as a ‘one solution,’ the ride-hailing company’s logo was absent from the display of partners at the launch, so we asked Ma if we can expect to hear anything soon. “I think Didi is interested, but they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. A lot of companies are. The companies we announced today are not the only companies we talked to.”

Test ‘Drive’

The two Lincoln MKZ’s running on Apollo 1.0 were available for us to take a ride. But before that, we took a spin in a Haval running on Baidu’s software- and hardware-based advanced driver assistance system (ADAS).

Hands-free driving in the Haval running Baidu's ADAS (Image credit: TechNode)

Hands-free driving in the Haval running Baidu’s ADAS (Image credit: TechNode)

The ADAS is Level 3 in terms of autonomy, which means it’s assisted driving rather than a fully autonomous Level 4 system such as Apollo 1.0. The Haval SUV had been programmed to run a particular route through the tires but when a helper put a sign in the middle of the road it changed course. The ride was jiddery, as though to take a bend the car breaks the curve into a series of short segments.

“Comfort is, of course, going to be a very important factor in terms of commercialization, but it’s not the biggest priority [at the moment],” explained Lei Ma.

“There are limits to what the car will let us do. Going forward we’re hoping to work with a lot of car makers and have access to their drive-by-wire interfaces so we can calibrate those controls and make things comfortable, basically the same as a human driver,” said Ma.

Passing the other Lincoln MKZ running Apollo 1.0—a world first having two autonomous cars on the same track (Image credit: TechNode)

Passing the other Lincoln MKZ running Apollo 1.0—a world first having two autonomous cars on the same track (Image credit: TechNode)

“Put your seatbelt on,” said the otherwise redundant human driver when we switched to the Lincoln MKZ. Running on Apollo 1.0, the difference to the ADAS was palpable. It felt much more like a human was driving, though the car still went into corners at quite a pace like the Haval (perhaps we’re just more cautious on the corners).

“We’re trying to smooth out all the movements,” explained the engineer in the back, who explained he was there “to press the start button.”

The other MKZ made its own loops in the test pen and we can happily report that the two vehicles, though driving around the same tracks and coming close together, did not even come close to any sort of collision.

Source:: Baidu launches their open platform for autonomous cars–and we got to test it

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