Many Apollo Projects

My latest Forbes.com article is an exploration of several different projects that Baidu’s Apollo team is advancing, including mobility-as-a-service, smart infrastructure, vehicle-to-everything communication, and infotainment.

The Mobility-as-a-Service program in Guangzhou steps beyond previous deployments, in that it pulls together different transportation modalities and use cases into a single service.

The service comprises 40 individual vehicles, of five different types:
* FAW Hongqi Robotaxis
* Apolong Shuttles
* King Long Robobuses
* Apollocop Public Safety Robots
* “New Species Vehicles”, Apollo’s term for a robot that can perform a range of functions, from vending snacks to sweeping and disinfecting the street

Read the whole thing!

Driverless Robotaxis In China

Yesterday, AutoX announced the launch of its driverless robotaxi service to the public in Shenzhen, China.

As I wrote in Forbes.com, the rollout resembles the process Waymo took to launch its driverless Waymo One service in Arizona, but AutoX is progressing much faster.

Whereas Waymo tested self-driving cars with human safety operators for a decade before advancing to driverless vehicles, AutoX was founded in only 2016 and just began testing fully driverless vehicles a few months ago.

This surprised me:

Also like Waymo, the base vehicle for the AutoX service is the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. The selection of an American automotive manufacturer for this initial program is notable because AutoX has partnerships with many Chinese manufacturers, including Dongfeng Motors, Shanghai Auto, BYD, and Chery Automobile.

There’s even an in-flight safety video you can watch. Read the whole thing.

AutoX Works 24 Hours A Day

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing AutoX COO Jewel Li for Forbes.com. We discussed what it’s like to run a company spread across the US and China. Diversity brings challenges:

“Culture is hard to explain,” says Li, who immigrated from China to the United States in 2011 to pursue her PhD at the University of Delaware. “It’s in every single detail. Are you writing all of your documents and messages in English, so that everyone can understand? If the company caters for employees, is it a diverse selection of food?”

But there are unexpected advantages:

“A lot of AV companies haven’t been testing and are data hungry. We were very lucky that there were always fleets to test in China. It never slowed us down,” says Li.

Lots more at Forbes.com.

Net City In Shenzen

Tencent, the Chinese technology giant behind WeChat, has announced plans for a “Net City” on a two square kilometer portion of their campus in Shenzen.

The Tencent announcement notes that, “A “green corridor” for buses, bicycles and autonomous vehicles will be the backbone of the district, running down its length.” They’ve hired a US architecture firm to design it all.

The zone will “accommodate” 80,000 people, although it’s not clear if those are residents or Tencent employees who will actually live off-site.

The report is pretty light on details, and even notes that there have been a few other announcements like this in Japan and North America, from Google no less. Google’s Sidewalk Labs just announced they will not proceed with their “smart city” in a Toronto neighborhood. The culprit was an inability to overcome a combination of urban regulatory burden, NIMBYism, and data privacy concerns.

To me, the North American contrast is the most interesting aspect to the Tencent project. This could either be read as a Chinese tech giant simply running a few years behind an American tech giant, only to give up in a few years itself. Or it could prove the point that China is capable of major infrastructure projects that just aren’t possible in North America anymore.

Time will tell.

Test In The City Or In The Suburbs?

In Forbes.com today, I wrote about the trade-offs between testing autonomous vehicles in urban versus suburban environments.

Chinese startup WeRide recently shared that, by its measurements, testing in Guangzhou, China, is thirty times more efficient than testing in Silicon Valley.

“The comparison between Guangzhou and Silicon Valley is pertinent to other self-driving operations, which have to consider where to test. Many self-driving car companies, including Waymo, have focused their operations on relatively favorable geofenced locations, such as Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Silicon Valley. In these areas, a combination of sunny weather, wide streets, and good infrastructure helps the programs progress.”

Lots more in the full post.

Autonomous Delivery Vehicles Are Big In China And The USA

Neolix, a start-up so Chinese that it has only barely has an English-language website, has announced mass-production of its autonomous delivery vehicles and declared itself the first company in the world to do this, according to Bloomberg.

Read my post at Forbes.com to learn much more.

The Chinese aspect of this signifies a number of things:

  • China is a big enough market that many start-up don’t need to really look outside
  • But Neolix says it is talking to international customers
  • It’s hard for me, as an American, to evaluate automotive news coming from China

Pony.AI Launches China’s First Robotaxi Service

Add Guangzho, China, to the list of places where the general public can ride in self-driving cars, according to TechCrunch.

Autonomous driving technology startup Pony.ai has become the first company to operate an autonomous ride-hailing service on public roads for public users in China. The company, just over a year-old, recently raised $112 million in a Series A round to help it accelerate its efforts, and its fleet is running a nearly two-mile route in Nansha, Guangzhou, where its China HQ is located.

Between Baidu’s Apollo project, Didi self-driving robotaxi work, Momenta’s deep learning efforts, BYTON’s plans for electrics self-driving cars, and now Pony.AI, China is becoming a key player in the race toward autonomous vehicles.

Interestingly, Pony’s fleet includes: “four Lincoln MKZs, as well at two Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC) Chuanqis.”

I wonder if the MKZs came from AutonomouStuff.

Update: Several commenters have pointed out, I think correctly, that with only six cars operating on a very short, fixed route, this isn’t really a “robotaxi” service. More like a proof of concept. Still a big step!

Startup Watch: By

Six months ago I wound up on a plane next to an executive from BYTON, an autonomous vehicle startup targeting the Chinese market.

At the time, I was unfamiliar with the company. But since then, BYTON has appeared more in the press. Most recently, they announced a partnership with Chris Urmson’s Aurora to power the autonomous stack in BYTON vehicles.

BYTON is notable for a few things.

First, the company seems to be a hybrid of China, Europe, and Silicon Valley, with leaders coming from all three locations. I wonder if more startups will be organized that way in the future.

Second, the are raising a ton of money. $200M so far, and they’re rumored to be raising a $400M round right now. Designing and manufacturing cars is capital-intensive.

Third, they are betting big on China’s electric vehicle mandate. The exact number or percent of vehicles that must be electric is a little hard to pin down, but it seems to be on the order of ten percent by 2020. BYTON is presumably hoping that being an electric-first vehicle company will give them an advantage.

Fourth, look at that dash screen.

Autonomous Vehicles: China Update

Volvo: The Swedish car manufacturer Volvo announced plans to test self-driving cars in China.

Chang’an Automobile: The Chinese manufacturer just completed a test run of self-driving cars over 2000km (1200 miles) from Chongqing to Beijing.

The cars successfully drove distance from other vehicles, changed lanes, overtook and performed other manoeuvres, including three-point turns automatically but still need the help of a driver in certain road sections and gas stations, the designers said.