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Baidu commercializes high-precision mapping for autonomous passenger cars

Baidu's autonomous BMW parked at company headquarters in Beijing in January 2016. Photo: Bloomberg

China's technology company Baidu, which is pouring a great sum of money into artificial intelligence and autonomous driving, has taken a milestone step to commercialize the application of its high-precision mapping and self-positioning technologies in unmanned passenger vehicles.

Under a strategic cooperation agreement signed recently, Great Wall Motor, a domestic automaker, will equip its mass produced WEY-branded cars with Baidu's high-precision mapping and self-positioning technologies, which are the prerequisites for an autonomous vehicle featuring the Level 3 autonomy to run on the road.

The volume production of the Baidu technologies-powered WEY cars will start in the second half of 2020, according to the agreement.

WEY is a premium brand of Great Wall Motor, and has achieved a monthly sale of more than 10,000 cars in less than two years since its creation.

The cooperation indicates that Baidu has taken a stride toward making the Apollo self-driving platform marketable. The Apollo platform, which was established last year, is an open-source platform giving third-party partners access to the necessary technologies needed for the research and development of driverless cars including high-definition mapping, obstacle perception technology and cloud simulation service.

The commercialization of the Apollo platform has been a concern for Robin Li, chairman and chief executive officer of Baidu, who has said that the platform could help the company make profit by selling much needed technologies such as high-precision mapping and simulation platform to traditional car manufacturers.

"The cooperation [with Great Wall Motor] is a commercial order aimed at realizing the mass production of vehicles [powered by high-precision mapping and self-positioning technologies]," said Li Zhenyu, general manager of Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group.

In July, Baidu announced the launch of the 3.0 version of the Apollo platform, shifting its focus to "mass production of autonomous vehicles" from "cheap solutions for autonomous driving", which was advocated by the 2.5 version of the platform.

Currently, the Apollo platform partners with more than 100 entities including technology companies, automakers, parts suppliers and research institutions.

On the part of Great Wall Motor, the Baoding, Hebei province-based carmaker has got on the bandwagon of establishing ties with technology giants in building self-driving cars on the basis of their complementary advantages.

The carmaker has been invited to join the Apollo open vehicle certification platform and agreed to provide the hardware systems of its gasoline-powered and electric vehicles to Baidu. In addition, the first batch of WEY VV6 cars has been selected by Baidu as test cars for self-driving.

According to an autonomous driving development plan, Great Wall Motor is intended to start sales of autonomous cars characterized by the Level 3 autonomy by 2020.

The Society of Automotive Engineers divides autonomous driving technology into six levels from Level 0 to Level 5. A car featuring the Level 5 autonomy can run fully independently without any human intervention.

By 2025, Great Wall Motor is expected to realize mass production of autonomous cars featuring the Level 5 autonomy, says the carmaker's autonomous driving development plan.

Great Wall Motor is among the first group of members of the Apollo platform.

Besides, Baidu has applied its self-driving technology in China's public transportation. At Baidu's annual artificial intelligence developer conference in Beijing this summer, Li announced the rollout of the 100th mass produced self-driving minibus from the production line.

The unmanned minibus, known as Apolong, is not fitted with steering wheel, accelerator pedal and brake pedal, and is now available in some Chinese cities including Beijing, Shenzhen and Wuhan.

Apolong is powered by the Level 4 autonomy, which allows 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.

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.

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