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China's Baidu Demonstrates its Apollo Robotaxi Without a Safety Driver Using its 5G-Powered ‘Remote Driving Service'

China's Baidu Demonstrates its Apollo Robotaxi Without a Safety Driver Using its 5G-Powered ‘Remote Driving Service'

Author: Eric Walz   

China's tech giant Baidu held its annual Baidu World 2020 conference on Tuesday. The annual event highlights some of the ground breaking technologies that the company has been working on throughout the year. This year's focus was on how Baidu's cutting-edge AI technologies are transforming industries and improving people's everyday lives.

Baidu is often referred to as the "Google of China '' and much of its recent research is in the field of artificial intelligence. The theme of this year's Baidu World 2020 is "Intelligence of Everything." 

With the global pandemic ongoing, the conference was streamed online this year in partnership with China Central Television (CCTV). It was streamed to users, developers, partners, media and investors.

The Intelligent of Everything theme included Baidu's latest work on AI-powered autonomous driving developed by its Apollo platform, which is an open platform designed to accelerate the large-scale deployment of autonomous driving technology across China by working with industry partners.

During a presentation at Baudi World 2020, Zhenyu Li, Corporate Vice President of Baidu and General Manager of it Intelligent Driving Group (IDG), demonstrated Apollo's advanced self-driving technology at Beijing's Shougang Park, which included a livestream demonstration of Baudi's fully-automated robotaxis operating without human safety drivers behind the wheel.

With Apollo's new fully automated driving capability, the AI-powered system can independently drive the vehicle without human intervention, a breakthrough that Baidu says will accelerate the large-scale deployment of autonomous driving technology across China. 

The driverless vehicles will be used in Baidu's "Apollo Go" robotaxi service. Last week, the service officially launched in the capital city of Beijing.

The hardware for the fully-autonomous robotaxis is being installed in the FAW Group vehicles during production. In 2019, Baidu partnered with Chinese automaker FAW Group to jointly develop a fully-electric E-HS3 SUV robotaxi from FAW's luxury subsidiary Hongqi. 

Instead of modifying production vehicles for self-driving as many companies do today, all of the hardware necessary for autonomous driving is being mass produced and pre-installed at the factory during the assembly. This approach better guarantees consistency, safety and reduced costs. 

The Hongqi E-HS3 SUVs are outfitted with Baidu's fifth-generation autonomous driving kit, which is the mass-produced vehicle that meets the requirements for fully automated operations. Baidu says the self-driving Hongqi SUVs are the first mass-produced robotaxis in China. 

The pre-installed hardware includes 360 degree cameras, radar, lidar and other vehicle sensors necessary for autonomous driving. The vehicles utilize the latest version of Baidu's Apollo autonomous driving technology. 

"With each new generation of Apollo vehicles, the cost will be halved while performance will increase by tenfold," said Zhenyu Li, Corporate Vice President of Baidu and General Manager of Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group.

Baidu's driverless robotaxis have already been deployed in five cities in China, including the capital city of Beijing, Changsha, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Cangzhou. For now, there are safety driver's behind the wheel when they pick up passengers, but for Baidu World the company operated the vehicles without them, demonstrating its confidence in the robust technology.  

To date, Apollo has completed over six million kilometers of road testing (3.73 million miles) and carried over 100,000 passengers across 27 cities around the world with zero accidents, Baidu said.

The company believes that autonomous driving technology will create a new ecosystem of shared transportation in China and will enter the stage of full commercialization in 2025, said Robin Li, Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Baidu.

Li estimates that by 2025 major Chinese cities will no longer need to limit vehicle purchases and usage, and by 2030 most traffic congestion problems can be solved by smart transportation and infrastructure based on V2X technologies, which can improve urban traffic efficiency by 15% to 30%. 

The Apollo Go Vehicles are Backed by a 5G-Powered Remote Driver Service

Baidu refers to its autonomous driving system as an "experienced AI driver" and it's able to control the vehicle works independent of a human driver. The system is trained to handle a majority of possible issues on the road. If any unexpected situation is encountered, a human driver is able to immediately take over control of the vehicle remotely. 

The safe operation of the robotaxis is backed by a 5G-powered "Remote Driving Service" developed by Baidu. It allows human operators to remotely access the Apollo Go vehicles in the case of any emergencies or in a case where the vehicle's software cannot handle the current situation.

The 5G Remote Driving Service can be engaged instantaneously to provide immediate assistance from highly trained remote human operators that can control the Apollo vehicles remotely whenever the system switches to parallel driving mode. 

The remote operator sits at a futuristic workstation resembling a driving video game, complete with a steering wheel, multiple live camera feeds, pedals, and other vehicle controls that are connected directly to the robotaxi vehicle via a fast, low latency 5G cellular network. The setup allows a human to remotely take over control of the vehicle from miles away.

The Remote Driving Service is designed for unexpected road situations, such as lane closure due to construction or when an obstacle is blocking the lane ahead. 

Baidu said its Remote Driver Service is powered by vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies, and high bandwidth 5G networks.

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Baidu's "Remote Driving Service" allows a person to remotely take over control of one of its Apollo Go robotaxis as if they were sitting behind the wheel. (Photo: Baidu)

Companies developing autonomous driving technology in the U.S. have developed similar remote operator technology as a way to remove safety drivers from the vehicles, including Waymo, the company that spun out of Google's self-driving car project. However, the much faster 5G communication speeds available in China that better support remote operations have not rolled out yet in the U.S.

Baidu said that all of its remote human operators have completed over 1,000 hours of cloud-based driving training without any accidents, so they can ensure the safety of passengers and pedestrians when the vehicles are under their control. 

However, Baidu expects that it won't need to rely on the human backup drivers too often. The company said that situations that require human intervention are rare. It's designed so that a single operator can supervise multiple autonomous vehicles at once instead of relying on one person per vehicle, as other companies have done.

In addition to the Apollo robotaxi, Baidu also announced at Baidu World that Chinese automaker Weltmeister will launch a new model incorporating Apollo's smart valet parking technology in 2021, which will be the first in China to be equipped with SAE level-4 autonomous valet parking technology. 

Autonomous parking technology is one of the most popular features for vehicle buyers in China, as it can be difficult to park in many of the country's crowded cities.

The vehicles will be able to identify vacant parking slots in multi-level parking garages, and allow people to use the autonomous-parking and smart summons functions from their smartphone.

In the future, Baidu has plans to incorporate its AI technology in other areas in order for Beijing to become a leader in innovation and smart city technology.

"Baidu Apollo will continue pushing for the commercial application of autonomous driving. With our technology and platform advantages, we will contribute more to the development of autonomous driving and smart transportation in Beijing and support the city to become a world-leading AI innovation hub," said Zhenyu Li, Corporate Vice President of Baidu and General Manager of Intelligent Driving Group, when the Apollo Go service launched last week in Beijing. 

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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