On October 28, Chinese technology firm Baidu showcased its 5th generation robotaxi fleet, Apollo Moon, at an open house event in Beijing’s Shougang Industrial Park. The new self-driving cars come in three models – Apollo Moon Arcfox, Apollo Moon WM Motor and Apollo Moon Aion – built in collaboration with Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers Arcfox, Weltmeister and Aion, respectively.
Key features of Apollo Moon highlighted by speakers at the event included 5G remote driving, affordability, increased test-drive mileage and enhanced safety and user experience.
5G Remote Driving: Powered by China’s expansive 5G infrastructure, the technology enables remote human operators (all of whom have completed 1,000 hours of remote training) to assume control over the vehicles in case of emergencies. According to Wang Yunpeng, Baidu’s Vice President and Director of autonomous driving technology, 5G remote driving is expected to be used in more diverse scenarios such as trucking, cleaning and logistics. Baidu’s goal is to deploy over 3,000 robotaxis across 30 cities in China over the next two to three years.
Increased Test-Drive Mileage: The test-drive mileage of Apollo Moon has reached 18 million kilometers this year, tripling the number from last year. This, according to Wang, makes Apollo Moon “an experienced driver.” To put things into perspective, a human driver would need to complete a daily mileage of 100 kilometers for at least 500 years in order to cover 18 million kilometers of road.
Affordability: Baidu’s budget robotaxi has a per-vehicle production cost of 480,000 yuan ($75,032), only one-third of the cost of an average L4 autonomous car (L4 means the cars are fully autonomous, although a human driver can still request control). With a projected operating cycle of five years, Apollo Moon’s per-month cost is around 8,000 yuan, which is lower than the monthly salary of a driver in Beijing. Apollo Moon’s low production cost is made possible by a combination of factors, including the installment of a single lidar sensor powered by a strong algorithm, and the robotaxi’s mass production capabilities.
Enhanced Safety and User Experience: In case parts of the vehicle malfunction, Apollo Moon is equipped with comprehensive redundancy features in its computing units, GPS system and chassis to ensure safety. In extreme weather conditions, Apollo Moon’s cameras and sensors can detect obstructions and clean themselves. As Baidu sees it, safety and convenience are at the core of a good user experience. To make sure the passengers enjoy their rides, Apollo Moon has an AI voice assistant reminding them to fasten their seatbelts and shut the doors.
The Experience: I was invited to try out an Apollo Moon Arcfox at an area right outside the industrial park. A fellow journalist hailed a car for us using an app, and we cruised alongside pedestrians, stopped at traffic lights and made some slow U-turns. The entire ride lasted for about two minutes, and we sat in almost absolute silence, trying to absorb the experience as much as we could. Watching the wheel spin itself almost felt meditative. Overall, the ride was smooth, pleasant, uneventful and indistinguishable from a regular ride.
I wonder if all of this would have been different if it had rained, or if we had had a slightly chattier AI voice assistant.