WeRide robotaxis gain loyal passengers but fixed pick-up, drop-off spots irk some, survey shows


By Che Pan

WeRide has completed a total of 147,128 robotaxi trips for more than 60,000 passengers in the past year, it says. Nearly 60% of about 650 passengers surveyed say they use the robotaxi service for regular commutes. — SCMP

About a year since WeRide first launched its first autonomous taxi service in Guangzhou, the Chinese self-driving start-up said its robotaxis have won over a group of loyal customers, although passengers were lukewarm about its limited service range and the convenience of its fixed pick-up and drop-off points.

Since the service launched in the Guangdong capital on Nov 28 last year, WeRide has completed a total of 147,128 robotaxi trips for more than 60,000 passengers, it said in a press release. The service is currently free.

Nearly 60% of passengers used the robotaxi service for regular commutes, with 28% riding at least once a week, according to a survey of just over 650 WeRide passengers from Oct 30 to Nov 8, the company said. It added that 80% of those surveyed said they would continue to use the service and recommend it to their friends and families.

However, 90% of riders surveyed also said they hoped the service would be expanded to a larger area, while 70% said they wished for more flexible pick-up and drop-off spots. Asked to rank various aspects of the riding experience on a five point scale, passengers gave overall positive scores, with the highest satisfaction with “in-vehicle cleanliness” (4.17), “courtesy to pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles” (4.13) and “safety driver performance” (4.08). The lowest average ratings were for “service range” (3.18), “waiting time” (3.24) and “pick-up and drop-off point convenience” (3.28).

When traditional taxis or ride-hailing cars and robotaxis were both available, only 9% of WeRide’s robotaxi passengers surveyed indicated that they would choose the former option, whereas 28% of the respondents said they would choose the robotaxi – a choice the company attributed to “the obvious advantages RoboTaxi has in terms of being a safe, fun and comfortable experience”.

“The passengers surveyed were less satisfied with ‘service reach’, ‘waiting time’ and ‘pick-up and drop-off spot convenience’, which is related to the constraints with RoboTaxi’s fixed pick-up and drop-off spots as well as the limited number of vehicles in service,” WeRide said in a report on the survey, which was conducted jointly with Tsinghua University’s Institute of Transportation Engineering. “These limitations, however, can be largely alleviated as WeRide expands its operation scale.”

Robotaxis are seen as one of the potential ways to make money from autonomous driving technologies in the near future. Major self-driving companies, including Baidu, ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and start-up AutoX have all launched robotaxi services in different cities across the country.

Autonomous driving is also expected to be a part of China’s 14th five-year plan, which will outline the country’s long-term objectives through to 2035. The Chinese Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Science and Technology are working together to identify research and development areas in the industry, the transport ministry’s policy research director Wu Chungeng said last month.

But full autonomous driving – without a safety driver – remains a challenge due to the complexities of navigating busy, real-world environments. Robotaxi services are also currently limited to designated areas with specific pick-up and drop-off spots.

Currently, WeRide has a fleet of 100 vehicles that offer robotaxi services from 8am to 10pm every day in a geo-fenced area that stretches 144 sq km across Guangzhou’s Huangpu and Guangzhou Development districts.

Compared to regular taxi and ride-hailing services that can be accessed across the city, WeRide passengers can only get on and off its robotaxis at 200 fixed locations, although the company said in the report that 35% of the passengers surveyed “only need a short walk” to complete their robotaxi trips.

Search engine giant Baidu, another major player, launched its Apollo robotaxi service in Beijing in September, making it the third city after Changsha in Hunan province and Cangzhou in Hebei province with services. The head of its autonomous driving open platform said then that full commercial operations were still several years away with technical problems, high costs and lack of clear regulations likely to delay large-scale deployment of its robotaxis until around 2025.

Baidu said it aimed to expand its pick-up spots in Beijing to more than a hundred in the next few months, without disclosing how many pick-up points it has in the three designated areas in the city it operates robotaxi services in. – South China Morning Post

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