At the Shanghai Auto Show on Wednesday, Baidu revealed its imposingly named “Apollo” project, which it described as an “open, complete and reliable software platform for its partners in the automotive and autonomous driving industry to develop their own autonomous driving systems”.
The move appeared inspired by Google’s efforts to dominate smartphones by launching Android as an open source set of tools that partner companies could customise.
Baidu said it would open up its technology in stages. In July it will share intellectual property for “restricted environment” driving, followed by its technology for cars running autonomously in simple urban road conditions by the year-end. By 2020, the company said it would make available “fully autonomous driving capabilities on highways and open city roads”.
The open-sourcing of automotive technology is not unprecedented: in 2014 electric carmaker Tesla offered its tech secrets to rivals in an attempt to boost interest in low-emission vehicles.
Until now, Baidu had sought to develop its autonomous driving technology through partnerships with Chinese domestic carmakers such as BAIC and Chery. The groups have also been road testing with Lincoln cars in California.
Baidu is widely seen to have an edge over its Chinese competitors in artificial intelligence technology, and is regularly rated on par with IBM and Google in the field. However, last month it was dealt a setback by the departure of some of its most senior talent.
In March Andrew Ng, Baidu’s chief scientist and AI guru, left the company, while this month Wang Jing, general manager of Baidu’s autonomous driving unit, said he would leave to set up his own company.
Mark Natkin of Marbridge Consulting in Beijing said Baidu’s move to open-source its technology was ambiguous: “One could look at this as an ambitious effort to jump out into the forefront of autonomous driving technology, but . . . one could also see this is as a step back from a wholly self-contained effort to develop the technology,” he said.
How Baidu intends to generate revenue from the open source model is unclear, but Shu Chang, a consultant at Roland Berger in Shanghai, said the data generated by the project could be immensely valuable.
“The biggest driver for Baidu in this project is that, through an open platform like this, Baidu is able to collect user information through the whole autonomous driving and car networking system,” he…