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Baidu begins mass production of self-driving minibus

Baidu's Apolong bus Photo: Baidu

Robin Li, chairman and chief executive officer of China's technology giant Baidu, has made good on his promise to commence the volume production and trial operation of an autonomous minibus this summer, despite reports of self-driving car crashes which killed pedestrians in foreign countries.

At Baidu's annual artificial intelligence developer conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Li proudly announced the rollout of the 100th mass produced self-driving minibus from the production line, which the technology company builds in partnership with domestic bus producer King Long.

The unmanned minibus, also known as Apolong, is not fitted with steering wheel, accelerator pedal and brake pedal, and is able to run about 100 kilometers on a two-hour charge, said Li.

Apolong's relatively high degree of autonomous driving is determined by the Level 4 autonomy, which enables the minibus to be almost totally in control all the time without any human intervention. At this level, a self-driving car will only stop itself if there is a system failure or the conditions dictate that a human driver behind the wheel needs to take control. The highest level is the Level 5 autonomy.

The Apolong minibuses will be operated in the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shenzhen, Pingtan and Wuhan as well as the Xiongan New Area for commercial purposes, according to Li. Baidu will also work with SoftBank's self-driving subsidiary SB Drive to use the Apolong minibuses as shuttles for the workers of a Japanese nuclear power station and the senior people in some residential communities in Tokyo.

Baidu is the world's first company to achieve mass production of a self-driving vehicle. The rollout of mass produced Apolong minibuses is almost two years earlier than the general prediction that the mass production of self-driving cars is likely to become a reality by 2020.

Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project, and Toyota set 2020 as the year for the mass production of their driverless cars. Tesla, which is also focusing on autopilot, says that it cannot build a fully autonomous car until 2020.

"The year 2018 marks the beginning of the commercialization of autonomous driving ... From the mass production of the Apolong minibuses, we can truly see that autonomous driving is making great strides and taking the industry from zero to one," said Li.

The faster-than-expected commercialization of the Apolong minibuses is, to a large extent, the result of the expansion of the Apollo self-driving platform, which Baidu set up last year. As an open-source community, the Apollo platform has allowed an open access to more than 220,000 lines of code contributed by over 10,000 developers since its establishment. Currently, the Apollo platform cooperates with more than 100 entities including technology firms, automakers, parts suppliers and research institutions.

At Wednesday's artificial intelligence developer conference, Baidu announced the launch of the 3.0 version of the Apollo platform, which focuses on "mass production of autonomous vehicles", compared with the 2.5 version concentrating on providing "cheap solutions" for autonomous driving.

In China, autonomous driving has become a major research item for both technology giants and startups. Many Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have lifted restrictions on the road tests of autonomous cars, allowing companies registered in China to conduct road tests of their self-driving cars in the designated regions.

However, some experts still cast doubt over the smooth operation of the Apolong minibuses on the normal roads, saying that the conditions of normal roads are much more complicated than those in the test fields.

In March, an autonomous car of Uber claimed a woman's life on a street in Arizona when the pedestrian was walking outside of a crosswalk, marking the first reported fatal crash involving an autonomous vehicle.

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