Chinese-based Baidu has announced that they are building a fleet of 1,000 autonomous vehicles. The cars will be mid-sized crossovers known as ‘Apollo Moon’ and will be rolled out over the next 3 years.
Baidu claims they can make the cars for RMB 480,000, which translates to A$99,468.92 in a straight currency conversion. When we consider the cost of a vehicle designed to be autonomous and have the purpose of making revenue by transporting passengers, we also have to consider the potential lifespan of the vehicle.
Being an all-electric vehicle, the Apollo Moon obviously uses battery packs, which Baidu expects will have a 5 year life cycle.
Baidu and partner BAIC Group entered into a strategic partnership way back in 2017, so this autonomous vehicle may seem like it’s arrived overnight, but it’s actually been a long time in the making.
Aimed to revolutionize the transportation sector by providing robotaxi ride-hailing services, the company recently begun rolling out ride-hailing services in Beijing (newly added Tongzhou area), Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing and other cities.
Delivering a car that’s capable of level 4 autonomy is a big deal and important to the industry worldwide. Level 4 refers to the 4th level or category of autonomous systems as defined by SAE who recently updated their guidance at the end of April 2021.
The levels are now listed as:
- Level 0: No Driving Automation
- Level 1: Driver Assistance
- Level 2: Partial Driving Automation
- Level 3: Conditional Driving Automation
- Level 4: High Driving Automation
- Level 5: Full Driving Automation
Under Level 4, the user does not need to supervise a Level 4 ADS (automated driving system) feature or be receptive to a request to intervene while the ADS is engaged. A Level 4 ADS is capable of automatically performing DDT (dynamic driving task) fallback, as well as achieving a minimal risk condition if a user does not resume performance of the DDT.
This automated DDT fallback and minimal risk condition achievement capability is the primary difference between Level 4 and Level 3 ADS features. This means that an in-vehicle user of an engaged Level 4 ADS feature is a passenger who need not respond to DDT performance-relevant system failures.
To understand what’s on offer from Baidu here, it is important to understand the tech stack that powers this vehicle and enables a robotaxi service to be constructed on top of it. Only then can we can appreciate the capabilities and limitations for the Baidu service.
Apollo Moon will feature omni-sensors, which from the photo, we can see translates to them using a large module and cameras at the top of the vehicle, complimented by a radar in the front grill. As with all LiDAR-based systems, their limitation is their reliance on HD maps of a locations. While profitable services could be built in dense urban areas, it does limit the reality of scaling and maintaining maps across larger geographic areas.
There’s not a lot of detail on the computing unit, only to say that it features redundancy and degradable processing algorithms, which I assume pulls you over safely in the event of hardware issues.
There’s a reference to 5G remote driving service and V2X being also supported. The first of which is an important inclusion, having the ability to remotely drive the vehicle, sounds very much like their solution to the instance that the vehicle encounters a scenario it can’t resolve itself. That automated DDT fallback would seemingly be to a remote driver, so the question becomes, how often is that required.
Baidu says Apollo Moon will have a 99.99% success rate of ride-hailing in complex urban cityscapes, allowing for a fully driverless vehicle experience that is equivalent to that of human drivers. That tells us they’re incredibly confident in their technology, in the areas they offer the service. If the story is that positive, it does beg the question, why are they only building 1,000 vehicles, if it works that well and the costs are that low for each vehicle, why wouldn’t they be making tens of thousands of robotaxis ?
The Apollo Moon is also said to feature dynamic vehicle identity authentication, which in theory would allow you to enter and exit the vehicle and have the payment authorised by your face. Obviously China has a very different relationship with face recognition, but it does sound convenient.
An electronic display is attached to the sunroof to exhibit the status of a robotaxi and allows passengers to identify their ride from afar. Once you get in, Apollo Moon will remind you to put on your seat belt and an AI voice assistant will engage you to determine your destination.
Over the past 8 years, Baidu has been working on autonomous vehicles, they have amassed 2,900 patents for intelligent driving and 244 relevant road testing licenses. Their current cars have accumulated more than 12 million kilometers in testing data, steadily growing at a pace of 40,000 kilometers every day.