Baidu’s self-driving bus project has been suspended after key personnel were withdrawn, 36Kr has learned.
Multiple sources, including an employee of the Apolong autonomous bus program, said the team’s headcount has been reduced to a barebones crew of just 20 to 30, from more than 300 previously .
The shifted personnel are now working on Baidu’s open-source autonomous driving platform, called Apollo, which operates self-driving vehicles.
“The only staff that remain are responsible for just simple testing and maintenance tasks,” the employee said.
This is a major reversal for Baidu, after it said in July 2018 that it has built 100 units of the self-driving minibuses, which have 14 seats for passengers but no driver controls like a steering wheel, an accelerator, or a brake pedal.
The buses were co-developed with Fujian-based Xiamen King Long Motor Group, the second largest bus manufacturer in China. The company planned to conduct trial operations in Beijing, Wuhan, and cities in Fujian province. The company also said it has teamed up with SB Drive, an autonomous driving subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank Group, to test drive ten Apolong buses on Tokyo’s streets by March 2019. SoftBank did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest progress.
Another former Baidu employee, who was also involved in the project, told 36Kr that the company has stopped promoting Apolong after experiencing financial losses. “Production cost of a bus exceeds RMB 2 million (USD 284,660), but they are only sold at around RMB 1.5 million each,” the person said.
The vehicle was also plagued by teething problems during its operations in Beijing’s Haidian Park, according to several Chinese media reports. During operations, the bus had a tendency to stop abruptly near pedestrians due to oversensitive proximity sensors.
Two additional sources with knowledge of the Apolong project confirmed to 36Kr that the company decided to suspend the project “indefinitely” after the first quarter.
This blow to Baidu comes in the wake of strong competition from local rivals in autonomous driving, including ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and AI startup DeepBlue. The latter’s self-driving Smart Panda Bus, which seats 24 passengers, is now officially operating in ten cities across China including Tianjin and Changzhou, and the company has inked deals to export its vehicles to Thailand and Greece.
Baidu denies that the Apolong program has been halted. “Currently, Baidu’s autonomous driving project is in good health and progressing well, as are the products, team and technology related to it,” the company said in a statement.
This story was originally written by Li Qin of 36Kr, KrASIA’s parent company.