China’s national AI champion Baidu to test driverless delivery vans in US with Udelv for Walmart
- Nasdaq-listed Baidu announced the deal with California-based autonomous delivery van maker Udelv on sidelines of the 2019 CES tech fair
- Deal highlights global nature of many emerging technologies as US and China remain locked in trade talks
One of China's tech champions will soon be testing its driverless technology in Arizona for customers including Walmart, underscoring how US companies remain potential buyers of Chinese technology even as the two countries remain locked in a race for tech supremacy.
Baidu, operator of China’s largest search engine, has entered a partnership deal with California-based autonomous delivery start-up Udelv that will see self-driving vans powered by its software offer delivery services to American retailers such as Walmart from February.
The delivery services will operate alongside robo-taxis from Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, putting China’s champion up against one of its biggest autonomous driving rivals in the US market. Nasdaq-listed Baidu announced the deal with Udelv at a launch event for its latest open self-driving platform – Apollo 3.5 – on the sidelines of the 2019 CES tech fair in Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Under the deal, Apollo 3.5 will be used in Udelv’s new self-driving van model. Designed to address middle-range and last-mile delivery, the van can drive itself at up to 60 miles per hour and carry up to 32 customer orders per route.
“Baidu's Apollo brings us one step closer towards realising our mission of reinventing delivery by bringing autonomous vehicles to the e-commerce industry,” said Daniel Laury, co-founder and chief executive of Udelv, on Tuesday. “By using modules of the latest Apollo 3.5 software for our autonomous technology, we shortened our development cycle, accelerated innovation and facilitated our ability to scale.”
Founded in 2016, Udelv has completed over 1,200 deliveries on public roads in the San Francisco Bay Area and has signed trial service deals with Houston-based auto repair chain XL Parts and Walmart. Walmart will likely be one of the first major US retailers to integrate autonomous deliveries into its customer service offering. The collaboration also points to the global nature of many new technologies and supply chains, at a time when US-China trade relations remain under stress.
Udelv, backed by Japan’s Marubeni Corporation, expects to deploy up to 100 vans this year for merchant customers, according to a statement from the start-up.
Baidu has said that Apollo 3.5 is the first open source autonomous driving platform that can perform in complex urban and suburban driving scenarios.
“Udelv’s next generation autonomous delivery van is a prime example of Apollo accelerating innovation and utility in the autonomous driving industry,” said Wang Jingao, senior director of Baidu and head of the Apollo project. “With continued development of our Apollo software platform, we are enabling companies, both large and small, to quickly develop their own autonomous driving systems.”
At the CES unveiling, the Beijing-based tech giant also announced the launch of Apollo Enterprise, a suite of self-driving solutions ranging from valet parking and fully autonomous minibus solutions, to voice assistant and map data services.
The company also plans to launch a fleet of 100 robo-taxis in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province, on 130 miles of city roads where cars can communicate with intelligent road infrastructure for autonomous driving.
Named after the US space flight program that landed the first humans on the moon, Baidu’s Apollo platform has attracted over 120 partners including BMW Group, Daimler and Honda.
In November, Baidu unveiled a jointly-developed self-driving passenger car model with state-owned FAW Group, with volume production expected in 2020, while a similar deal is under way with Volvo to develop level-four autonomous cars over next few years.
Under industry guidelines set by the Society of Automotive Engineers, level-four self-driving vehicles should be able to slow down, pull over or park at a safe spot if a human driver does not take control when requested.
The company has been hand-picked by Beijing to spearhead the country’s research efforts in autonomous driving, a key application of artificial intelligence where both China and the US are vying for supremacy.