Chinese search engine company Baidu's headquarters in Beijing. Photo: iStock
Chinese search engine company Baidu's headquarters in Beijing. Photo: iStock

Search giant Google made its Android operating system wildly popular by giving free access to its software to mobile-device makers and wireless carriers so they could utilize its platform. Now, Chinese Internet company Baidu wants to do the same thing with its driverless-car operating software.

A host of companies are climbing on board – including Microsoft, Uber rival Grab, mapping specialist TomTom and big carmakers such as  Ford. The more than 50 partners are grouped under Baidu’s Apollo project to distribute its driverless software to other companies and also develop a self-driving vehicle that can be mass-produced.

Apollo’s moniker was inspired by the US space program that put a man on the moon. Baidu hopes Apollo will emulate the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration by tapping the expertise of a similar lineup of top tech companies.

Baidu’s push in driverless technology is being overseen by an Autonomous Driving Unit (ADU) that was created last year. Its linchpin is a team of more than 100 Silicon Valley-based researchers who include machine-learning experts as well as hardware and software engineers. They cover a range of specialties, from robotics and computer vision to onboard computers and sensors.

“Baidu’s Silicon Valley car team will play a significant role in building the car of the future,” Jing Wang, the general manager of Baidu’s autonomous driving unit, said when the group was formed in April 2016.

Apollo is charged with coming up with everything needed to run an autonomous car. The supporting technology is expected to include cloud services, an open software stack, hardware and vehicle platforms.

Baidu has teamed with big US chipmaker Nvidia to provide the hardware on which its artificial-intelligence-driven driverless platform will run. The platform chips provided by Nvidia are the same ones being used by major carmakers such as Toyota, Tesla and Volvo to operate their systems.

Last year, the Chinese search firm also jointly invested US$150 million in Velodyne, a company that makes LiDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors that guide vehicles.

ADU got another lift in April when Baidu agreed to acquire US computer vision firm xPerception for an undisclosed sum to back its AI efforts. Baidu plans to use the firm’s technology for augmented-reality projects in addition to driverless cars.