Chinese internet giant Baidu has made its self-driving software freely available and open source. It’s an audacious move and, potentially, a brilliant one.

CEO Robin Li announced the Apollo platform this week after arriving at a conference in a self-driving car, a move that the authorities aren’t entirely happy with.

The company boss claimed that Baidu wants to get the Chinese car industry up to speed and help the smaller manufacturers. On the surface, it’s good plan.

What’s included with Apollo?

As well as the software stack and associated Cloud-based support, the Apollo platform includes a simple recipe for the self-driving hardware, including radar, cameras and GPS systems.

A simple, off-the-peg solution is the dream ticket for a lot of manufacturers who simply don’t have the resources to develop their own autonomous software.

So now, boutique manufacturers and start-ups can simply adopt Baidu’s basic design and be sure that the autonomous features will work at a fixed cost.

The release will be staggered

The software will arrive in stages. Right now, developers can use Baidu’s system to record the car with a person at the wheel, so that you can then train the car’s autonomous mode.

Later this year, Baidu will add features that include improved hazard identification and depth perception. Localization and planning features will follow.

The fact that it is free is impressive and surprising in equal measure.

Baidu has invested serious money into its self-driving software and now it is simply handing it out, complete with the code so that manufacturers can tailor it to their own requirements.

Open Source is a novel approach

This is one of the most secretive industries in the world and Baidu has gone against the grain by opening up its data.

“Apollo is an important milestone for the automotive industry,” “It is, in essence, the Android of the autonomous driving industry, but more open and more powerful,” Qi Lu, vice chairman of Baidu.

If enough manufacturers collaborate on the Apollo platform then it could easily go on to become the industry flagship. Baidu will have Cloud-based mapping services, voice-interface technology and a simulation platform to train the car. It’s advanced stuff.

Baidu has effectively enlisted a vast number of partners to help perfect the system, beta testers which can provide invaluable feedback and data. This could give the internet giant the numbers it needs to become the dominant force in the autonomous car market.

How it monetizes that advantage is another question entirely now that it has gone open source. Clearly, though, it’s an intriguing strategy.

Could Baidu catch Tesla?

It is perhaps the only way that Baidu could match the established masters of data capture, Tesla, which has autonomous hardware fitted to each and every car that leaves the production line.

Every Tesla on the road is feeding information back to the Palo Alto company, which can use real-world data, incidents and unforeseen circumstances to train its system with AI. It’s a massive competitive advantage.

Tesla vs Baidu: the new Apple vs Android?

Tesla has been called the Apple of the self-driving car world before now and its own proprietary system mirrors the iPhone’s OS. It makes sense for Baidu to try and take over the Android role as a multi-platform competitor.

It’s an interesting power play and only time will tell how it turns out. If Baidu can get a mainstream manufacturer on board, though, as Android did with Samsung, then giving the software away could be Baidu’s shrewdest business move to date.