China is undergoing a revolutionary transformation as AI rapidly penetrates industries from transportation to communication — a growth rate phenomenon that Baidu Group President & COO Qi Lu calls “China speed.”
Baidu, which bills itself as China’s most powerful AI company, used its CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Baidu World @ Las Vegas event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Monday Jan 8 to showcase its upgraded autonomous driving platform Apollo 2.0, a self-driving vehicle commercialization project, and three smart devices powered by the conversational AI system DuerOS.
First released last July, Apollo is an open-source platform that gives developers access to a complete set of vehicle, hardware, software, and cloud data service solutions; as well as an API and codes for obstacle perception, route planning, vehicle control, and operating system. Aimed at democratizing autonomous driving, Baidu hopes Apollo will become “the Android of the auto industry.”
Lu reported that Baidu’s Lincoln MKZ test vehicle powered by Apollo 2.0 and Nvidia Drive PX had successfully completed day and nighttime runs on designated city streets in Beijing and Xiongan in China, and San Jose and Peoria in the US. One of the most important features added to Apollo 2.0 is advanced perception capabilities enabled by cameras and radar. Apollo 2.0 can detect obstacles within 300 ft (91 m) and traffic lights within 500 ft (152 m) with 99% accuracy.
Josh Whitley is a senior engineer at AutonomouStuff, the Illinois-based autonomous system components startup that equipped test vehicles with both Apollo versions. He told Synced that although improved camera and radar processing have accelerated the development of self-driving vehicles, challenges remain. “Apollo 2.0 is not really good at handling high speed, which is something they might be working on for the next iteration.”
Apollo 2.0 also comes up with a security solution integrating OTA, IFDS and a black box, designed to protect self-driving vehicles from hacks.
Over 165,000 lines of code have been created on Apollo, with an average of 146 “Commits” per week received from developers on Github. Says Apollo Senior Director Jingao Wang, “Apollo is now the most vibrant autonomous driving platform in the world.”
Baidu has big dreams for Apollo. By the end of July 2018, the autonomous driving solution will be incorporated in Chinese manufacturer King Long’s self-driving buses for use in designated areas. Chery Automotive, another Chinese vehicle manufacturer, plans to mass produce Apollo-powered Level 3 autonomous vehicles by 2020.
“This is the China speed in AI we talk about,” says Lu. “If you asked the question whether L3/L4 (autonomous vehicles) would be commercially viable a year ago, nobody would believe it would be this early!”
As Apollo’s value increases so does Baidu’s push for partnerships, especially in Silicon Valley. At the Mandarin Hotel event Udacity Founder Sebastian Thrun announced the online education platform will jointly launch a self-driving course with Baidu. It will be the first such Udacity partnership with a Chinese company.
DuerOS continues to grow
Baidu’s DuerOS, a conversational AI platform for virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant, debuted at last year’s CES. DuerOS supports home appliances like TVs and smart speakers and mobile devices such as phones or watches. Last July, DuerOS released open-source SDKs and APIs enabling developers to build third-party voice conversational services. Since then, over 130 companies have entered into partnerships with Baidu, coming up with over 20 hardware solutions.
“China is a huge market for driving the accelerated pace of innovation. By 2020, 27% of Chinese households will have smart home systems, 51% will have smart cars, and 68% smartphones and wearables,” says DuerOS lead Kun Jing.
At CES Jing introduced three smart device equipped with DuerOS, including the Little Fish VSI smart speaker, Sengled smart lamp speaker, and PopIn Aladdin, a voice-enabled dome light with projector functionality.
Baidu is plotting a bold course — packaging its AI technologies into open-source platforms and releasing them for free. While it’s unknown how or when Baidu will turn a profit from its heavy AI investments, it’s certain that the company is driving domestic AI democratization, turning this “China speed” idea into a reality. Says Lu, “AI is borderless. Innovation benefits everyone.”
Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen