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China's Baidu Fully Opens its 'Apollo Go' Robotaxi Service to the Public in Beijing

China's Baidu Fully Opens its 'Apollo Go' Robotaxi Service to the Public in Beijing

Author: Eric Walz   

China's Baidu Inc., which is one of the world's largest tech companies and the equivalent of Google in China, announced this week that its "Apollo Go" robotaxi service in Beijing is now fully open and picking up passengers. With a limited launch of the service in September, Baidu became the first company in China to pick up passengers in autonomous vehicles.

The Apollo Go service is free for riders and there are no reservations necessary. Riders can summon one of the Apollo Go robotaxis using Baidu Maps, the Apollo Go standalone smartphone app, or the Apollo Go mini program in the Baidu app. Baidu says it currently has 14 pick-up and drop-off stations approved and opened to the public. 

The service will expand to nearly 100 pick-up and drop-off stations covering residential and business areas in Yizhuang, Haidian, and Shunyi districts in the near future, Baidu said.

In compliance with local regulations, the Apollo Go robotaxis can accommodate up to two passengers at a time between the ages of 18 and 60.

Baidu demonstrated its Apollo Go robotaxis at its annual Baidu World 2020 conference on October 10. The vehicle was without a safety driver onboard. In the absence of a safety driver, the autonomous vehicles are monitored by remote teleoperators that can control the vehicles remotely if needed over a 5G cellular network.

The teleoperations are in place for an extra layer of safety for passengers, but they can also be used to take control of the vehicle if a road is closed or if the vehicle's software encounters any conditions that it cannot handle. 

Although the Apollo Go vehicles will have safety drivers onboard for now, the goal is to eventually remove them. However  Beijing has yet to approve fully driverless testing without human safety drivers on public roads.

However On September 15, Baidu Apollo was given licenses for driverless driving road tests in Changsha, Hunan province. Since these vehicles do not have drivers onboard the robotaxis are equipped with 5G-enabled teleoperation so a human can take over in any unexpected situations.

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Customers can summon a ride in an Apollo Go robotaxi directy from Baidu's smartphone app.

The Apollo Go robotaxis that the public can hail are equipped with lidar, GPS, surround-view cameras, ultrasound radar and millimeter wave radar. Baidu says the vehicles are capable of Level-4 autonomous driving, which requires no human intervention in most cases. However, a human still has the option to manually override the vehicle in some situations, which is the role of the remote teleoperators.

The Apollo Go self-driving vehicles can handle unprotected left turns, smart lane changes, navigating complex intersections, as well as automatic parking.

As part of the Apollo Go service, Baidu's fleet of autonomous vehicles are operating each day from 10:00am to 4:00pm in the testing areas in Beijing. Baidu said that Beijing is the technology and innovation center of China and also a strategic location for AI and autonomous driving development. It's the first city in China to regulate and open autonomous driving road test zones. 

Outside of Beijing, the Apollo Go service operates within a 700-kilometer area in the largest autonomous driving test area and longest road network in China

The fleet of robotaxis comprises 40 Lincoln MKZ sedans. The MKZ is Baidu's 3rd-generation autonomous vehicle model approved for self-driving testing licenses in Beijing. 

Baidu said it will continue to use the Lincoln MKZs for the Beijing trial operation under the city's "one-vehicle, one-license" policy. However, Baidu is currently in discussion with local authorities to switch to using the Hongqi electric SUVs from Chinese automaker FAW due to the capacity limitations of software-hardware integration in the Lincoln models.

FAW and Baidu jointly developed the Hongqi Robotaxi EVs in 2019. Hongqi is the luxury arm of automaker FAW. The EV is China's first-of-its-kind mass-produced Level-4 autonomous car. All of the hardware necessary for autonomous driving is added during production.

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The Hongqi EVs are equipped with Baidu's custom-built "Apollo Computing Unit" (APU), which Baidu says is the world's first production-ready compute platform built from the ground up for autonomous vehicles. All of the ACU's components meet automotive-grade production requirements.

The name "Apollo Go" comes from Baidu's Apollo open autonomous driving platform designed to foster innovation and speed up the development of autonomous driving and related technologies by collaborating with industry partners. The Apollo project was announced in April 2017. For the past three years, Baidu has been developing its autonomous driving technology with over 100 industry partners as part of its open Apollo project.

The growing list of global Apollo partners include automakers BMW, Ford Motor Co, Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda, Daimler, as well as chipmakers Intel and Nvidia.

As of September, Baidu's fleet of self-driving vehicles completed road tests totaling 322,492 miles (519,000 km) in Beijing. As a result of the comprehensive testing, Baidu was granted permission to offer robotaxi rides to the general public in the city. 

In addition to Beijing, the Apollo Go service is open to the public in Changsha, Hunan province, and Cangzhou, Hebei province.

As expected, the service in Beijing is attracting much attention with curious customers lining up to take a ride in one of the Apollo Go autonomous robotaxis. Baidu says its received more than 2,600 ride requests in a single day.

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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