​Bosch, Nvidia, Grab join Baidu's autonomous driving alliance

50 partners have joined the Chinese search engine giant's Apollo mission.

Baidu has officially launched its Apollo project, naming 50 partners to help it accelerate the development and adoption of autonomous driving.

First announced in April, Apollo is an open platform that allows access to the technology behind its autonomous vehicles. It is expected to support all major features and functions of an autonomous vehicle, including cloud services and an open software stack, reference hardware and vehicle platforms, and tools to support various functions such as obstacle perception, trajectory planning, and vehicle control.

Speaking at Baidu Create in Beijing this week, company group president and COO Qi Lu likened Apollo to the Android operating system, noting Baidu wants to build a "collaborative ecosystem" to fast-track the technology's progress.

"Apollo is an important milestone for the automotive industry," Lu said. "It is in essence the Android of the autonomous driving industry, but more open and more powerful."

Members of the Apollo alliance include vehicle manufacturers such as Chery Automobile, FAW Group Corporation, Changan Automobile Group, and Great Wall Motors; suppliers, including Bosch, Continental Automotive, ZF Friedrichshafen AG, and Desay SV Automotive; components providers such as Nvidia, Microsoft Cloud, ZTE, Velodyne, and TomTom; as well as startups including AutonomouStuff and Horizon Robotics; and ridesharing companies such as UCAR and Grab Taxi.

Baidu said the alliance also extends to five universities and six local governments, including Wuhu, Anhui Province; Baoding, Hebei Province; Yizhuang, Beijing; Chongqing Liangjiang New Area, Chongqing; and Shanghai International Automobile City, Shanghai.

"Apollo is not solely Baidu's. It belongs to everyone in the ecosystem. And as we and our partners contribute to the platform in our areas of specialty, we all gain more, with the results far greater than just our own," Lu added.

The company expects Apollo's capabilities to be opened gradually, beginning with autonomous driving technologies for restricted areas in July and fully autonomous driving on urban roads and highways by the end of 2020.

"Apollo's strategy of opening up its resources is a step in the right direction," Pradeep Gupta, senior manager of Autonomous Driving at Nvidia, said of the initiative. "Through close collaboration with each and every player in the industry, we can more effectively build a new and complete autonomous driving ecosystem."

In September 2016, Baidu and Nvidia announced a partnership that combines Nvidia's self-driving computing platform with Baidu's cloud and mapping technology to develop an algorithm-based operating system capable of powering complex navigation systems in autonomous vehicles. The companies have been testing autonomous vehicles in eastern Chinese cities including Wuhu and Shanghai.

Similarly, the company signed agreement in April with Bosch Group and map providers AutoNavi and NavInfo to develop "high-precision maps" that Baidu said is necessary to facilitate autonomous driving.

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.

Last year, Baidu also formed a self-driving team in Silicon Valley, focused on the research, development, and testing of autonomous vehicles. The team is part of Baidu Autonomous Driving Unit that operates in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

The Chinese search engine giant's US competitor is moving forward with its self-driving car unit Waymo, after last month turning to car rental giant Avis Budget Group to store and service Google's 600-vehicle fleet of Chrysler self-driving vans.

A public trial of the Avis partnership is taking place in Phoenix, Arizona through Waymo's early rider program, with the company hoping to bring its "technology to more people, in more places" as a result of the partnership.

Intel and Strategy Analytics expect fully autonomous vehicles will bring forth a new "passenger economy" worth $7 trillion by 2050, separate from the autonomous vehicle industry itself.

While the predicted value can be disputed, Intel's overarching point is that fully autonomous vehicles will generate new types of products, services, and business models as today's drivers become tomorrow's idle passengers. Autonomous vehicles are expected to free more than 250 million hours of consumers' commuting time per year.

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