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WHY CHINA’S DRIVERLESS ROBOTAXIS ARE GAINING SPEED

The emergence of so-called “robotaxis” could quickly change the landscape of urban tourism in China.

Specifically, driverless public transport has been a huge focus for China-based start-ups and businesses, with the focus on autonomous taxis (robotaxis). It is a country that largely benefits from local and regional tourism, and recent strides in autonomous public transport could further enhance the experience for millions of visitors. 

Robotaxis Get Approval from Beijing

Perhaps the most influential entity in China’s robotaxi race is Baidu. The tech giant is considered one of the largest AI and internet companies in the world, with the infrastructure and backing to be a leading figure in the autonomous taxi industry. 

In November 2021, Beijing’s municipal government approved a permit for Apollo Go, Baidu’s robotaxi business, to collect fares in Yizhuang, a suburban district in the capital city. This approval is the first of its kind in China, a major city allowing a company to charge members of the public to use robotaxis. 

Wei Dong, vice president and chief security operation officer at Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, told CNBC this could have a domino effect in the country. It is expected that cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen will follow suit either in 2022 or as soon as this year.

Facts and Figures

Baidu’s Apollo Go robotaxis began a pilot scheme back in October 2020. Free robotaxi rides were offered in Yizhuang, which drew in a selection of regular users. Senior figures at Baidu reported that more than 20,000 users took at least 10 rides a month during this free pilot scheme. 

Apollo Go effectively launched on November 25, 2021, with 67 self-driving taxis distributed to the district of Yizhuang. Pricing for the service has not been disclosed, however, fees were compared to that of premium taxi apps such as Didi. Wei Dong has stated that the company aims to add an additional 100 robotaxis each year. It is important to note that at this stage, Baidu are only allowed to offer public robotaxi services if a (human) member of staff is on board. 

An Apollo robotaxi during a test.
An Apollo robotaxi during a test.

Competitive Race for Commercialisation

And Baidu are not the only players in this competitive market. WeRide, an autonomous driving start-up based in China, recently made headlines after partnering with a major car manufacturer. The start-up joined forces with Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC Group) in November 2021, with the intention of launching driverless taxis through the app Ontime by 2022. The partnership shows how serious companies are with regards to commercialising robotaxis in China. 

Pony.Ai is another player in the self-driving taxi space. The company claims to be the first to launch robotaxi services back in December 2018, providing a service for passengers to hail self-driving vehicles through its PonyPilot+ app. AutoX is another company making waves in this increasingly competitive industry. The company recently launched an early rider program in Shenzhen, in the rush to revolutionise urban transport and with it, urban tourism.  

Robotaxis In America

Naturally, the United States is also home to many self-driving taxi operators looking to gain approval from regulators. One such company is Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc (Google’s parent company), based in Mountain View, California. The company has been testing products in California and Arizona, and was recently given the go-ahead to charge members of the public for fares in a section of Phoenix. What’s more, Waymo’s driverless vehicles do not require a safety driver to be present in the vehicle. 

With other US companies such as Cruise gaining momentum, and Baidu’s recent approval from Beijing, driverless taxis could dominate urban roads quicker than expected. Thanks to recent investments, innovations and approvals, self-driving taxis and vehicles could help revolutionise urban tourism unlike ever before. 

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