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Baidu is preparing to launch a driverless service in China — and elsewhere — with another update to its Apollo autonomous driving platform and the mass production of Apolong, an autonomous mini bus that seats up to 14 people.
Baidu made the announcements at Baidu Create 2018, the company’s annual AI developer conference. Baidu has started volume production of the autonomous mini buses in partnership with Chinese manufacturer King Long. The buses are being produced at King Long's manufacturing facility in Xiamen, in southeastern China’s Fujian province.
Baidu’s Chairman and CEO Robin Li introduced the milestone while live-streaming the 100th bus rolling off the production line to more than 6,000 attendees at Baidu Create 2018 in Beijing.
Baidu plans to launch the autonomous bus service in several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shenzhen, Pingtan and Wuhan. But the company has aspirations beyond China. Baidu is partnering with SB Drive, the autonomous driving subsidiary of SoftBank Group, to bring Apolong autonomous mini buses to Japan early next year.
Apolong is outfitted with Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system, which is capable of Level 4 operations, a designation by automotive engineering association SAE International that means the vehicles take over all driving in certain conditions. The buses will initially be deployed in tourist spots, airports and other controlled, or geo-fenced areas.
“2018 marks the first year of commercialization for autonomous driving. From the volume production of Apolong, we can truly see that autonomous driving is making great strides, taking the industry from zero to one, "Robin Li said during his keynote address.
The autonomous buses are the physical embodiment of Baidu's Apollo program, an open-source autonomous driving platform that has been under development for years. Baidu isn’t interested in making the actual car — just the software that drives it. Baidu has focused its effort on delivering services, like data and high-skilled computing. Baidu is betting that its tech will help it become China’s leading developer of self-driving vehicles.
And it wants as many companies as possible to use its Apollo platform. Some 116 partners are now on the Apollo platform, including new partners Jaguar Land Rover, Valeo, Byton, Leopard Imaging and Suning Logistics.
The latest upgrade to the Apollo platform — also announced at Baidu's developer conference — aims to better support autonomous driving in geo-fenced areas. Apollo 3.0, as it's being called, includes new solutions to support valet parking, autonomous mini buses and autonomous microcars. The aim is for this update to help its dozens of partners deploy volumes of autonomous vehicles, not just one or two.
A previous update, announced in January at CES 2018, included support for new computing platforms, new reference vehicles and more HD mapping services. At the time, Baidu also said it would offer support for the four main computing platforms: Nvidia, Intel, NXP and Renesas.