Caixin
Sep 21, 2017 05:49 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Baidu Revs Up Autonomous Driving Project With $1.5 Billion Fund

Baidu Inc. launched the official 1.5 version of its Apollo platform, which includes functions aimed at helping automakers and related companies develop autonomous driving technologies. Above, visitors ride in a Baidu self-driving car in Shanghai on June 8. Photo: Visual China
Baidu Inc. launched the official 1.5 version of its Apollo platform, which includes functions aimed at helping automakers and related companies develop autonomous driving technologies. Above, visitors ride in a Baidu self-driving car in Shanghai on June 8. Photo: Visual China

Online search leader Baidu Inc. unveiled plans for a 10 billion yuan ($1.52 billion) fund to support its Apollo project for autonomous-car development — part of its recent drive to transform into an artificial intelligence (AI) specialist.

The company discussed the new fund as it launched the official 1.5 version of its Apollo platform, which includes a wide range of functions aimed at helping automakers and related companies develop autonomous driving technologies. Baidu rolled out the first version of the platform earlier this year, which includes hardware and software tools for developers, as well as supporting cloud services.

The new Apollo fund is still in the process of raising money, and aims to spend the eventual 10 billion yuan total over three years on more than 100 projects, the company said at an event on Wednesday. At the event, Baidu also disclosed that it has added 17 new partners to the Apollo program, bringing the total to 70. Those new partners include South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co., China’s own Lifan Industry (Group) Co. Ltd., and rental car specialist eHi Car Services Ltd.

Late last month, Baidu also announced a partnership with carmaker Anhui Jianghuai Automobile Co. Ltd. (JAC) with an aim of launching a mass-produced self-driving vehicle in two years.

Baidu stressed it wants to make Apollo a community open to developers in the autonomous driving space, and won’t directly profit from the platform.

“Apollo doesn’t equate to Baidu,” company Vice President Wu Xuebin told Caixin, adding that Baidu was hoping to profit from the project by offering support through means like cloud-based services.

Baidu announced the new fund and updates to its program as it races to be at the forefront of China’s autonomous driving arena. Others in the race include internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and the now-struggling LeEco. Its driverless-vehicle push is part of the company’s broader aim to become a leader in AI technologies, an area being strongly promoted by Beijing.

But it’s far from clear if China’s roads are ready for driverless cars just yet. There are no existing laws or regulations for driving unmanned vehicles on public roads. A July video of a Baidu employee road-testing an autonomous vehicle in Beijing — with no hands on the wheel — set off a debate about whether the excursion was legal.

In July, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology concluded a public comment period for setting guidelines with technical standards for the self-driving car industry. The ministry’s short-term goal is to establish 30 sets of standards for factors such as vehicle safety, information security and sensors. Earlier this week, a source close to the ministry also told Caixin that an outline of road testing rules for unmanned vehicles has been completed.

Contact reporter Yang Ge (geyang@caixin.com)

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