Tech companies like Apple and Google have been working on autonomous vehicles for some time, and Chinese firms are intent on catching up. Search engine Baidu has launched a 9.8 billion yuan (RM6.2 billion) Apollo Fund to be funnelled towards self-driving technology, with the aim of investing in 100 such projects over the next three years, according to Automotive News.

The fund was announced alongside the company’s latest open-source autonomous vehicle software, Apollo 1.5. Baidu has been developing the system internally for years, but opened up the tech to third parties in April in order to spur development and help it compete with Google’s Waymo initiative. The latest update allows partners to access to new obstacle detection technology and high-definition maps, among other features.

Named after the NASA’s moon programme, the Apollo project is intended to put completely autonomous vehicles on China’s city roads by 2020. So far, Baidu has signed on 70 automotive partners, up from 50 in July – these include Nvidia, Bosch, Daimler and Ford. Automotive tech company Continental joined the project in June, and Microsoft agreed to provide data storage, security and artificial intelligence in July.

The software is intended to allow vehicles to locate themselves within their surroundings, plan routes and control mechanical functions. Baidu president Ya-Qin Zhang has said that the company is targeting to implement the system in a small number of Level 4 autonomous vehicles – which will require no human input in certain types of traffic – within the next two to three years.

Baidu conducted its first road test of the technology in China in 2015, and last November it invited people to ride its cars on public roads in Wuzhen. However, it has had problems negotiating local regulations – Beijing’s police said in July that it was investigating whether Baidu had broken city traffic laws by testing a driverless car on public roads, as part of a press demonstration.

The move towards autonomous driving is part of a greater restructuring of Baidu’s corporate strategy, focused on finding new profit streams of its core search business. The company lost significant advertising revenue last year, after the Chinese government released stricter guidelines on medical advertising.