Baidu expects autonomous buses to become first wave of self-driving vehicles

Chinese search engine Baidu has entered the race for self-driving vehicles in 2014. In a partnership with BMW, the company presented an early prototype of an autonomous car at the end of 2015. Baidu’s approach mimics Google in many ways: Like the first Google prototypes of 2010, the car uses the (aging) Velodyne 64 Lidar as its main sensor; Baidu’s approach also relies on detailed mapping which fits well with Baidu’s overall mapping strategy. Baidu also aims to diversify its business model by leveraging its know-how in artificial intelligence and has transferred its auto-related activities into a separate division, a move that Google started last year by restructuring into Alphabet. There are some differences: unlike Google, Baidu does not seem to put much emphasis on the sensors; they don’t seem to experiment with their own sensors and the configuration of sensors indicates that certain situations in which a car may find itself have not been considered yet.

Baidu’s vision of how self-driving vehicles will be adopted also differs somewhat from Google. Whereas Google has focused on individual cars, and is testing electric two-seaters which could easily become robotaxis, Baidu expects the first wave of self-driving vehicles to be autonomous buses or shuttles. In a recent online interview, Andrew Ng, Baid’s Chief Scientist, argued that buses which service a fixed route or a small defined region will be the best starting point. He expects a large number of such vehicles to be in operation within three years (= early 2019) and mass production to be in full swing within five years (= 2021).

Andrew Ng correctly pointed out that such autonomous buses operating on fixed routes or small regionsĀ  would have the advantage that care could be taken to ensure that the routes are well maintained, don’t have construction (or the construction site is clearly indicated in the map) etc.

Unfortunately, Andrew Ng’s argument, that driving on predefined routes would enable the vehicles to avoid “corner cases–all the strange things that happen once per 10,000 or 100,000 miles of driving” (source) is flawed. He argues, that machine learning can not prepare for these corner cases and that therefore driving in a restricted well-defined environment is the solution. Unfortunately, corner cases can happen anywhere; it is impossible to guarantee that on well-mapped and well-known routes strange situations can not occur. Pedestrians can suddenly appear in areas that are closed for pedestrians, obstacles may occur on a road, an oil spill can occur, the road can suddenly be flooded etc. Building software that can reliably handle even the most challenging situations is a hard task and needs to consist of a combination of machine learning, an enormous testing program (usually combined with knowledge acquisition and machine learning), careful and very extensive risk analysis and risk modeling, and purpose-built test scenarios which challenge the capabilities of the cars both in simulators and in staged test cases in the real world.

We have pointed out for the past five years that the switch towards shared mobility services based on fully autonomous vehicles will be the great transformation that self-driving car technology will bring. This is the reason why auto makers have been so reluctant to push fully autonomous driving and why it provides avenues for new entrants such as Google, Baidu, EasyMile, Bestmile, Zoox, potentially Apple, and others to capture a significant share of the world’s expenses for personal mobility. There are many reasons why the first fully autonomous vehicles to appear on our roads will be robo taxis or self-driving buses, not the least that many current projects focus on such autonomous mobility services. Examples are: WEPods (Netherlands), CityMobil2 (Greece and EU), One-North (Singapore), Sentosa (Singapore), EasyMile, (USA, California), Google self-driving pods (United States, California and Texas), Milton Keynes driverless pods, (United Kingdom), Ultrapods (United Kingdom), Bestmile (Switzerland), DeLijn, (Belgium), RobotTaxi (Japan), Baidu (China), Yutong Bus (China).

In summary, Baidu’s focus on self-driving buses adds weight to the expectation that shared mobility services based on driverless pods and buses will drive the initial adoption of autonomous vehicles. Both self-driving cars and buses have to solve the problem of autonomous driving and the same technology can applied for both application scenarios. This is why the technology which Google currently refines with their 53 self-driving cars can easily be transferred into self-driving buses and shuttles and why Baidu’s current prototype is not yet a bus but rather a converted BMW. Those pioneers who solve the problem of fully autonomous driving will find enormous business potential for self-driving taxis, self-driving shuttles, self-driving consumer cars, trucks and machines. The race is on!