Baidu CEO Believes That SAE Level-4 Autonomous Driving Systems Will the First to Enter Commercial Use After L2, Skipping Over L3

Baidu CEO Believes That SAE Level-4 Autonomous Driving Systems Will the First to Enter Commercial Use After L2, Skipping Over L3

Author: Eric Walz   

Robin Li, the co-founder and CEO of Chinese internet technology company Baidu Inc, said it's more likely that Level-4 autonomous vehicles (AVs), not Level-3 AVs, will be the first to enter commercial use as robotaxis. While automakers will continue to develop L2 systems for passenger vehicles.

Li shared his thoughts on the industry in a speech at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference 2022 (WAIC 2022) this week in Shanghai.

These Level-2 systems available on vehicles today include Tesla's Full Self Driving beta (FSD) and Autopilot, as well as General Motors' Super Cruise.

There has been some confusion among the public as to the capabilities of the current autonomous driving systems on the market. Although these systems are highly advanced and can increase safety, they are designated by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) as "Level-2" autonomous driving systems, meaning that the driver is responsible for the safe operation of their vehicle and must pay attention to the road ahead at all times to be ready to intervene and take back control of the vehicle if prompted. 

Therefore, vehicles equipped with L2 automated driving features are not at all capable of actual "self-driving" and all of the driving responsibilities are on the human behind the wheel, not the vehicle's manufacturer in the event of an accident occurring when these systems are engaged. 

The auto industry so far has taken a linear approach to the development of autonomous driving systems as the technology advances. This begins with the rollout of SAE L2 systems, then progressing upward to L3, L4 and L5. SAE L4 and L5 autonomous driving systems are intended to operate without human intervention. 

But for automakers, these less advanced Level-2 systems sort of shield them from liability, since vehicle manufacturers bear none of the responsibility in the event of an accident with injuries or fatalities. Both Tesla's Autopilot and GM's Supercruise require full driver attention at all times. 

With automakers reluctant to take full liability of the autonomous driving technology they are developing, it's likely that L2 systems will stick around awhile and not progress to L3 any time soon. 

Li shares this opinion about L3 systems. "L2 and L4 have clearly defined car accident liability," he said. In case a car accident happens to a L2 vehicle, the driver is responsible. But for unmanned L4 systems such as a robotaxis, the operator of the vehicle is responsible for any accident or injuries since there is no driver. 

L3 systems that take over the driving tasks for short periods of time fall right in the middle of this.

"L3 is different because drivers will take over when needed, which makes it difficult to define liability when accidents occur," said Li. "Therefore, I think it will take a much longer time to roll out L3."

It's important to note that L3 systems still rely on a driver for backup. When prompted by a L3 system to intervene, a driver must be ready and able to take back control of the vehicle in 30 seconds or less.

These liability concerns will need to be addressed before automakers start offering more advanced Level-3 systems, which can operate for periods of time without a driver's full attention.

Baidu is rolling out a L4 robotaxi service in cities across China without using safety drivers. The service is named "Apollo Go", after Baidu's open Apollo autonomous driving platform, which launched in 2017. Baidu's Apollo platform is designed to speed up the development of autonomous driving technology through close collaboration with industry partners.

Li also mentioned that when Baidu obtains permits for autonomous driving operations within a certain area of a city in China, it usually takes the company around 20 days for technical preparation. 

This is because Baidu's autonomous technology uses AI and machine learning to predict how other road users will behave in situations. By learning from previous experience, Baidu's autonomous driving technology gets better over time, regardless of the city it's being deployed in. 

As Baidu's L4 autonomous driving technology improves, so does the public acceptance surrounding the safety of the technology, which makes L3 systems seem less viable for widespread use.

"Today, autonomous driving has become so close to us - people in more than ten cities in China can experience Apollo Go's service," said Li. "Autonomous driving is also gaining more trust and likeability among the public. Research shows that 83% of Chinese people accept autonomous driving technology."

In April, Baidu received the first-ever permits in China authorizing the company to provide fully-driverless ride-hailing services to the public in Beijing, meaning that no safety drivers will be present in the L4 Apollo Go vehicles. As of July 2022, Apollo Go's accumulative rides reached 1 million. In Q2, Apollo Go provided 287,000 rides to the public, up from almost 500% year-over-year and 50% quarter-over-quarter.

In July, Baidu unveiled its new production-ready L4 Apollo RT6 robotaxi, a fully autonomous passenger vehicle designed for autonomous urban mobility. 

The RT6 is the sixth generation of Baudi's autonomous vehicle and was built from the ground up for commercial ride-hailing. It's the first L4 vehicle built on Baidu's in-house developed automotive E/E architecture specifically designed for fully autonomous driving.

The futuristic RT6 includes a removable steering wheel to free up additional cabin space.The steering wheel-free design allows for more customization of the interior, such as adding extra seating, desktops, gaming consoles, even a small vending machine where passengers can purchase snacks or drinks.  

Although Baidu is developing L4 technology for commercial use, the ultimate goal for Tesla's Chief Executive Elon Musk is to build highly advanced automated driving systems for its personal electric vehicles that requires no human intervention. These are defined as SAE L4 and L5 autonomous systems.

Although the promise of a true level-4 self-driving car that requires no human oversight might appeal to some car buyers, offering such a system puts the liability back on Tesla in the event that something goes wrong. 

With the current technical abilities of autonomous driving systems on the market, this high-risk liability is not something that automakers, including Tesla, want to take on just yet. But German automaker Mercedes-Benz is an exception.

Mercedes-Benz developed the world's first L3 autonomous driving system called "Drive Pilot". The advanced system is offered on S-Class models in Germany. Drive Pilot is an advanced version of Mercedes Benz's Driving Assistance Package and includes additional sensors on the vehicle to support safe SAE L3 automated driving. 

The system takes over all of the driving tasks at speeds below 40 mph. Drive Pilot is especially helpful in stop and go driving situations, such as heavy rush hour traffic. It allows the driver to read a book or even watch a movie on the car's infotainment screen after it's activated. But the driver still needs to be ready to take over if prompted.  

Mercedes-Benz has a high-level of confidence in Drive Pilot. So much so that the automaker says its will accept full liability for any accidents as a result of its use

The S-Class equipped with Drive Pilot has a fully-redundant steering and braking system, as well as a redundant electrical system. In the unlikely event that any of these redundant systems were to fail, control can still be handed back to the driver.

But other automakers are more reluctant to take on this additional liability, so consumers may be stuck with less advanced level-2 systems in their personal vehicles for quite some time. While L4 systems will be reserved for commercial autonomous ride-hailing operations. 

Because of the shared liability concerns between automakers and drivers with L3 autonomous driving systems, the widespread introduction of these in the auto industry may never materialize.

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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