Baidu, the operator of China’s largest online search engine, has launched a 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) autonomous driving fund – its latest effort at stealing a march on its rivals in the development of artificial intelligence-powered vehicles. The “Apollo Fund”, created jointly by Baidu and Yangtze River Industry Fund, will invest that cash over the next three years into more than 100 autonomous driving projects, said the Nasdaq-listed Baidu. It also announced the release of Apollo 1.5, the latest iteration of the company’s Apollo open-source autonomous vehicle software. Baidu has vowed to release a driverless car by 2018, with mass production to begin by 2021 and has already enlisted 70 global and Chinese partners from car makers and ride-sharing companies, as partners for its Apollo project. According to a statement from the firm, newly joined members include Hyundai Motor, ROS, ESD electronics, Neousys Technology, and autonomous driving start-ups such as Momenta and iDriver+ Technologies. More than 50 cooperation agreements with Apollo partners on mass production or joint product development plans have also been inked, it said. The establishment of the fund is an incentive for Baidu to attract more engineers and developers to not only enhance the usefulness of its Apollo system but also improve the adoption chances of its system Kirk Boodry, an analyst with New Street Research The new fund will be used to spur the growth of what Wu Xuebin, vice-president of Baidu, recently calling the “Apollo community”. Named after the United States Apollo missions to the moon, Baidu’s system is being dubbed the “Android of the auto industry” by opening its autonomous car software in the same way that Google released its Android operating system for smartphones. By opening it up to third-party partners, Baidu is hoping to encourage more companies and developers to use the system as it fights for market dominance, against the mighty likes of Google in the US and Nissan in Japan. Baidu forms global alliance to accelerate AI adoption in self-driving cars The driverless car race is paramount for Baidu, as it seeks to transition into an AI-first company after its core search business was hammered by the Chinese government’s tighter controls over online medical advertisements. With the latest Apollo upgrade, Baidu said it opens its technologies to enables vehicles to perform autonomous driving capabilities in designated lanes, perfectly recognise obstacles and passengers and make optimal driving decisions, even at night. Despite AI being seen by analysts as a promising direction for the tech giant, others also have concerns over the commercial potential of the firm’s very clear shift in direction. “The establishment of the fund is an incentive for Baidu to attract more engineers and developers to not only enhance the usefulness of its Apollo system but also improve the adoption chances of its system,” said Kirk Boodry, an analyst with New Street Research. “The more companies that work on Apollo, the more likely those companies will use it when it is commercialised,” he said. But he said his company remains “neutral” on Baidu’s stock as its analysts are “cautious on the core search business, and believe it could take years for the AI-driven business models to evolve”.