Baidu powers up autonomous efforts with Bosch deal in China

Day after opening up its Apollo platform, the Chinese search giant inks an agreement with Bosch and map providers AutoNavi and NavInfo to develop "high-precision maps" for autonomous driving.

Baidu has inked an agreement with Bosch Group and map providers, AutoNavi and NavInfo, to develop "high-precision maps" that it says are necessary to facilitate autonomous driving.

The announcement came a day after the Chinese search giant said it would open up access to its autonomous driving platform Apollo, enabling its partners in the auto industry to develop their own systems on it. Available from July, these tools support various functions such as obstacle perception, trajectory planning, and vehicle control.

Baidu had been developing autonomous vehicles since 2015 and began testing such systems on the roads of Beijing and Wuzhen in China, as well as California after securing a permit in January. The company was targeting to see vehicles running its technology on urban roads before end-2017 and on highways and open city roads by 2020.

A new model, though, was needed to produce high-precision and updated maps, which were critical for autonomous driving to work, Baidu said, pointing to its partnership with Bosch and the two Chinese map providers. Alibaba acquired AutoNavi in 2015.

Under the agreement, the four companies would develop a product to extract data collected by Bosch's radar and video sensors used in vehicles, to generate and update maps. The information then would be used to enable autonomous vehicles to establish their own location.

Bosch's board member and chairman of its mobility solutions business, Rolf Bulander, said: "Automated driving will not be possible without high-precision maps--not in China and not anywhere else in the world either."

The partners were targeting to have the product ready for showcase by year-end, and data collected by the Bosch sensors would be compatible with map data of the other three partners.

Bosch's mobility business was the largest within the organisation and China accounted for 20 percent of the unit's sales in 2016, Bulander said. The mobility sector clocked 66.3 billion yuan (US$9.63 billion) in sales in the Chinese market alone last year, up 23.5 percent from 2015 when China's overall automotive market expanded by 14 percent.

Bosch currently operated 21 manufacturing sites in China, where it had more than 34,000 employees in its mobility business unit, including 4.600 developers who were based in 12 technology centres in the country.

Citing a survey it conducted, Bosch said 74 percent of Chinese respondents supported the introduction of autonomous driving on local roads, compared to 33 percent in Germany and 31 percent in the US.

Apart from China, the company also was testing the technology in Japan, Germany, and the US. Globally, mobility was Bosch's largest business sector, contributing 60 percent of the group's total sales at 44 billion euros (US$46.71 billion) last year.

In Singapore, self-driving vehicles including taxis and buses currently were trialled on selected roads, with focus placed on intelligent sensors and mapping capabilities. The government also was reviewing its transport laws to include considerations for autonomous vehicles.

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