How Baidu Apollo rolls in the AV industry
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Baidu Apollo is the leader and the most influential autonomous vehicle (AV) developer in China. Apollo has aggressive goals in several AV use cases, especially robotaxis. As a leader in AI research applying technology to AV, Baidu’s AV research began in 2013, while Project Apollo began in early 2017.
Baidu was founded in 2000 in Beijing and has become the leading Internet search company in China. Baidu went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2005. With total revenue exceeding $19.5 billion and profit exceeding $1.6 billion in 2021, Baidu has the financial resources to invest in AVs and robotaxis.
This column examines Baidu’s audio-visual activities, including a summary of its July announcement of a robotaxi-centric vehicle. The table below summarizes the audio-visual activities of Baidu Apollo.
Apollo is Baidu’s open-source autonomous driving technology platform that was launched in 2017. The goal is to provide an open and safe solution to enable its automotive industry partners to have self-driving capability . Apollo is one of the world’s most active open platforms for autonomous driving, with over 700,000 lines of source code, over 80,000 developers and over 210 industry partners.
Baidu has more than 500 AV L4 in test or robotaxi operation. In 2021, Baidu had two AVs tested in California. In 2018 and 2019, Baidu tested four AVs in California.
Baidu’s AV tests reached over 32 million kilometers (20 million miles) by the end of June. In California, Baidu’s AV tests reached 130,000 miles at the end of 2021.
Apollo has received 593 self-driving test permits in China, including 398 passenger-carrying test permits.
By the end of March, Baidu had filed more than 3,700 patent applications. Currently, Baidu ranks first in the world with more than 1,000 high-level autonomous driving patents.
Apollo is active in several AV use cases, with robotaxis as the largest segment. Baidu is also active in the development and testing of audio-visual vehicles for use in mass transit systems – often referred to as robobuses. This includes minibuses, such as Apolong, which has been tested since 2018 in 22 city parks in several cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiongan, Chongqing and Foshan.
The first generation Apolong is the only AV minibus to be operated on a large scale in China. Apolong has accumulated over 120,000 users and a total mileage of 120,000 kilometers by August 2021 when Apolong II was introduced.
Baidu received permission to test robobuses in Beijing at the end of March. Baidu is working with QCraft and SenseTime and will test eight additional robobuses in Beijing.
Baidu is also developing merchandise-only AV vehicles. These AV vehicles are the basis for special applications, such as street sweepers and similar tasks.
Apollo Go is currently available in 10 cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Changsha, Cangzhou, Wuhan, Wuzhen and Yangquan. Apollo Go has started its commercialized operations in several cities. Users can hail a robotaxi with a single click in Baidu Maps, Apollo Go’s standalone mobile app, or the Apollo Go mini program on the Baidu app. In April, Baidu received China’s first license for driverless transportation services in Beijing.
Apollo Go has provided over a million robotaxi rides, most of them for free. Paid robotaxi rides are available in four cities: Beijing, Chongqing, Yangquan and Wuhan (added in early July).
Baidu plans to expand Apollo Go operations to 65 cities in China by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030.
Baidu has a large AV test site in Beijing called Apollo Park. The test area supports AV development, as well as 5G and C-V2X technology testing. Infrastructure to improve AV utilization is a big part of Baidu’s plan to expand Apollo Go. Baidu will use 5G C–V2X when deploying robotaxis. Apollo Park has over 200 AVs and can support all aspects of development and testing.
Apollo RT6 robot taxi
Baidu Apollo announced its first robotaxi specially designed for the Chinese market on July 21. It is the sixth generation of robotaxi vehicles and the source of its name, RT6. It is a battery electric vehicle (BEV), which is a production-ready model. RT6 has a removable steering wheel.
RT6 will go live in China in 2023 on Apollo Go, Baidu’s autonomous transportation service. The table below summarizes the public data on the RT6.
The dedicated robotaxi design makes the Apollo RT6 distinct from previous generations that have been retrofitted for AV use in conventional vehicles. The detachable steering wheel design provides more space for unique interiors than the traditional driver’s seat.
The RT6 has L4 autonomous driving capability, provided by 1,200 TOPS of computing power, with an expanded sensor architecture that includes 38 sensors. Only the number of each sensor category was included in the RT6 announcement.
RT6 has eight LiDARs. From the published images, it is clear that only solid-state LiDARs are used. The RT6 is unlikely to use Continuous Wave and Frequency Modulated (FMCW) LiDARs. FMCW LiDARs are best for high-speed, long-distance views, which are currently not needed.
RT6 has six radars – probably just traditional radars without any 4D radars or imagers. A 4D imaging radar would be useful for forward-looking radar due to better interference rejection compared to traditional radars.
The exterior of the Apollo RT6 features an innovative look that incorporates sensors on the sunroof alongside interactive lights. This provided excellent sensor integration, as seen in the images below.
Apollo RT6 is the first vehicle model built on Xinghe, the automotive EE architecture developed by Baidu and designed specifically for autonomous driving. The RT6 uses automotive-grade electronics and features redundancy in hardware and self-driving software.
Apollo RT6 will join the Apollo Go transport service from 2023. However, there is no specific start month at this time.
The production cost of the RT6 is impressive, at 250,000 RMB (around $37,000). It is half the cost of the fifth-generation robotaxi, the Apollo Moon, which is currently used in Baidu’s robotaxi services.
In March 2021, Baidu formed a joint venture with Geely called Jidu to produce BEVs and AVs. In December 2021, Jidu announced that it would introduce a concept vehicle in mid-2022 and deliver its first mass-produced AV in 2023. In June, Jidu showed a prototype of its first vehicle, called Robo-1, which has considerable stand-alone functionality. Jidu says it will cost around $30,000 and should go on sale in 2023. This Wired article has more information about the Robo-1.
It looks like the RT6 might be based on the Robo-1 BEV, as the side view of the Robo-1 in the Wired article looks like the RT6.
Baidu believes that the steep cost reduction of the RT6 will lead to the deployment of tens of thousands of AV vehicles across China in a few years. It will also lead to future robotaxi rides costing half of current taxi rides. Baidu said it plans to produce 100,000 Apollo RT6 vehicles over an undetermined period of time.
Baidu included a surprising and probably controversial statement in its RT6 press release: Apollo RT6’s self-driving capability is equivalent to a qualified driver with 20 years of experience.
China’s robotaxi industry continues its rapid development and sets ambitious goals. Baidu Apollo is a leader in this trend, but there are many other competent competitors. The strong support of the Chinese government is an important factor in the progress of broadcasting. Various cities are also very favorable, and there is strong competition between major cities to lead the way to perceived future riches at the end of the rainbow.
Baidu is at the center of the Apollo open-source audio-visual development project, which continues to win support from Chinese and foreign companies. Baidu’s robotaxi service group, Apollo Go, has 500 VA in robotaxi testing or operation, with plans for rapid expansion. The Apollo RT6 robotaxi is key to this growth, with plans for tens of thousands of robotaxis in operation within a few years. The deployment of RT6 begins in 2023.
Apollo Go plans are even more enthusiastic, with robotaxi services in 65 Chinese cities in 2025, growing to 100 cities by 2030. This would likely require at least 100,000 robotaxis by 2030 (1,000 per city). If you assume Apollo’s competitors will have about twice as many robot axes (Apollo owns 33% share), we’re talking about potentially 300,000 robot axes operating in China by 2030.
Is this a reasonable or low probability scenario? Only time will tell, but there are a few useful factors in China that are not present in the US or Europe. The Chinese government basically decides the deployment speed of the robotaxi. AV safety is, of course, a major factor, but the overall accident rate in China is much higher than in the US and Europe. Therefore, robotaxis and AVs in general may reduce vehicle accident rates in China without matching the AV accident safety rates required or tolerated in the United States and Europe.
Additionally, any fatal AV vehicle accident in the United States and Europe will make headlines and negatively impact the AV industry. In China, not so much. Long-term goals are more important than short-term negative impact, and China is convinced that AV technology will bring major benefits ranging from economic impact to positive human impact.
China will reduce audio-visual risks by only allowing robotaxi to operate in certain parts of cities – parts where traffic and roads are suitable for safe operation. The areas of operation of the robotaxi will expand over time and as the capacity of the AV system progresses. The incorporation of 5G-based C-V2X will also strengthen AV security in China, as the deployment of C-V2X for all vehicles is expanding rapidly.