Chinese web giant Baidu has announced a US$1.5 billion investment fund for autonomous vehicle projects. The company is already working on an open-source autonomous driving platform, known as Apollo. 

The “Apollo Fund” has been created jointly by Baidu and Yangtze River Industry Fund. Over the next three years more than 100 autonomous driving projects will benefit, 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. The latest software is said to add significant new capabilities including obstacle perception, planning, cloud simulation, HD maps and deep learning.

“The cloud simulation system on Apollo is the only platform that provides open, built-in HD maps tailored for autonomous driving,” says Baidu. “Based on large scale cloud computing capacity, Apollo has a vast amount of real traffic data in China, and has a virtual running capacity of one million kilometers per day.”

Baidu plans to release a driverless car as early as 2018, with mass production by 2021. The company has already enlisted 70 global and Chinese partners from car makers and ride-sharing companies, as partners for its Apollo project.

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.

Newly joined members include Hyundai, ROS, ESD electronics, Neousys Technology, and autonomous driving start-ups such as Momenta and iDriver+ Technologies. Currently, the Apollo platform is already being used to operate autonomous buses and cars in controlled environments and designated lanes.

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