Baidu, China’s largest search engine, said last week that it’s opening up its self-driving technology to drive the development of the budding industry. At the Shanghai Auto Show, according to the Financial Times, the company said the project would provide an “open, complete and reliable software platform for its partners in the automotive and autonomous driving industry to develop their own autonomous driving systems.”
A lot of tech companies—Google and Apple included—have switched from developing actual self-driving cars to developing the software that those cars will run on. Baidu’s plan is to open-source theirs to everyone. Granted, they’re not the first to do this, that would be George Hotz’s Comma.ai, but this is the first time we’ve seen a much larger company try this approach.
Recently, Baidu was the subject of an apparent autonomous car tech hack, which makes me wonder if this spurred the move to open up its secrets to potential rivals—but the FT says 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 customize.”
It’s an interesting decision, particularly when Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo, and Uber are duking it out in court over the alleged theft of self-driving car tech secrets. But the company’s president said the project, called Apollo, aims to inspire more innovation at a quicker pace.
“We see a lot of reinventing the wheel,” Qi Lu, Baidu’s president and chief operating officer, told MIT Technology Review. “Let’s innovate at a higher level.” More from the Review:
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 might be looking to garner some positive news, too, as in recent weeks its chief scientist and its autonomous driving general manager announced they were leaving the company, according to the FT.
The Apollo project is expected to go live in July, and it’s release comes as Baidu’s hoping to move a self-driving vehicle into production by 2018, a highly ambitious goal.
“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 told the MIT Review.