Baidu’s Apollo platform becomes the ‘Android of the autonomous driving industry’

Baidu now claims one of the largest partner ecosystems for an autonomous driving platform in the world: Its Apollo autonomous driving program now counts over 50 partners, including FAW Group, one of the major Chinese carmakers that will work with Baidu on commercialization of the tech. Other partners include Chinese auto companies Chery, Changan and Great Wall Motors, as well as Bosch, Continental, Nvidia, Microsoft Cloud, Velodyne, TomTom, UCAR and Grab Taxi.

The Apollo program (if that name seems familiar, it’s because it’s actually named after the U.S. mission to the moon) also includes five of China’s top universities, and local government tie-ups as well. Baidu’s COO Qi Lu called the platform the “Android of the autonomous driving industry, but more open and powerful,” and it aims to provide developers with tools including data, APIs, open source code for some portions and even reference hardware to help them bring autonomous driving products to market.

To demonstrate what the platform can do, U.S. autonomous system supplier startup AutonomouStuff showed off two cars they turned into self-driving models using Apollo’s 1.0 software release in just three days. These cars ran circuits at a track near Baidu’s AI developer conference, which is where the Apollo program news was announced.

The goal is to open up Apollo’s abilities to developers gradually over time, and this month, developers will get access to driving technologies for specific, restricted areas. By the end of 2020, Baidu hopes to offer a platform that can handle full autonomous driving on both urban roads and highways.

In the autonomous driving industry there have been a lot of partnership announcements, amounting to a sort of ‘musical chairs’ with many players seeking to team up on various aspects of the challenge. In that context, Baidu may have just sat down in all the chairs at once. These partnerships tend to be open, as players hedge their bets and prepare for multiple leaders to emerge in the space, but Baidu’s open approach with the resulting product is interesting and different.

Baidu, as an Internet company with business similar to Google’s, seems to believe that the data and services business resulting from use of its platform will be worth making it more broadly available (the Android model). It’s an interesting approach, and one that could prove a winning strategy, especially in the potentially massive Chinese market.