While tech giants in the West squabble over who owns what propitiatory tech one of their Chinese competitors has decided to do the opposite. The Chinese technology firm Baidu has announced the “Apollo” project. With the aim of making all of their self driving tech open source and available to the automotive industry at large.
Project Apollo will be opened up for cars operating in restricted environments in July. Baidu then plans to share its technology for simple urban road conditions before the end of 2017, with the final goal of opening up its entire tech suite, allowing developers access to self driving capabilities on highways and open city roads, by 2020.
While the move to make their self driving tech open source may seem a little odd at first sight it actually makes a lot of sense. Baidu has long held the ambition of putting itself at the forefront of the autonomous driving industry but faces stiff competition from well established rivals like Google and Tesla. Baidu are clearly betting on the fact that open sourcing their self-driving tech will lower the barrier to entry and encourage more manufacturers to work with them and therefore encourage the development of self driving cars in general.
Qi Lu, Group President and Chief Operating officer at Baidu, clearly believes in the potential of self driving technology, saying “”AI has great potential to drive social development, and one of AI’s biggest opportunities is intelligent vehicles”. Even the name of the project, “Apollo” is borrowed from the Apollo lunar landing program, hinting at the potential impact Baidu believes their decision will have.
Baidu has attempted to collaborate with other car-makers in the past. For two years they worked with BMW to develop self-driving cars but the two companies broke off their partnership in 2016. The Firms cited differences in expectations of pace and direction of research. In theory, the decision to open-source their driving technology will allow them to work with many different partners who build specifically for Baidu’s platform.
This kind of move is not without precedent. In 2014 Tesla released all of their patents in an attempt to encourage the development of electric cars and to an extent, the move appears to have worked. The take up of electric cars did increase and as Mr Musk pointed out in 2014, patents are little defense against a determined competitor.
Baidu’s hope is that the move will encourage other companies to get involved in the self-driving sector and help to pick up the pace of innovation and normalize the sector in the public eye. Only time will tell whether it is the right strategy.