Baidu bags first fully driverless robotaxi licence


Going driverless: A Baidu autonomous ride-hailing service platform Apollo Go vehicle in Shenzhen. The company has operated over one million rides across 10 Chinese cities since its launch in 2020. — Reuters

BEIJING: China search engine giant Baidu Inc say it has obtained permits to operate fully driverless robotaxi services on open roads from two Chinese cities, the first of their kind in the country.

The permits, awarded by the southwestern municipality of Chongqing and the central city of Wuhan, allow commercial robotaxis to offer rides to the public without human safety drivers in the car. They came into effect yesterday.

Baidu said they marked a “turning point” in China’s policy-making towards autonomous driving.

“These permits have deep significance for the industry,” Wei Dong, chief safety operation officer of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, told Reuters in an interview.

“If we think of the exploration of space, this moment is equal to landing on the moon.”

At first, Baidu will deploy a batch of five fee-charging robotaxis in each city, where they will be allowed to operate in designated areas from 9am to 5pm in Wuhan and 9:30am to 4:30pm in Chongqing, the company said.

The service areas span 30 sq km in Chongqing’s Yongchuan District and 13 sq km in the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone.

In April, Baidu’s Apollo and Toyota Motor Corp-backed Pony.ai said that they received permits in Beijing to deploy robotaxis without safety drivers in the driver’s seat on open roads within a 60 sq km area. But the Beijing permits still require them to have a safety driver in the passenger seat. These services have started.

Baidu is also in talks with local governments in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, to secure licences within a year to test fully-driverless and unpaid robotaxis in those cities, according to Wei.

China’s efforts to fast-track autonomous vehicle trials and permits come as United States regulators are also pushing ahead with milestone-setting autonomous driving policies.

In January, self-driving company Cruise received a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission that allows it to offer paid and fully driverless rides from 10pm to 6am in select streets in San Francisco.

Apollo Go, Baidu’s robotaxi service, has operated over one million rides across 10 Chinese cities since its launch in 2020. Baidu has not reported any problems with the service and has not given a breakdown for how much it has invested in the project. — Reuters

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