The self-driving taxi, developed by tech giant Baidu Inc., has no one behind the wheel. is rolling down a Beijing street when his sensors spot the corner of a delivery cart jutting out into his lane.
The taxi stops in a gondola car. “I’m sorry,” a recorded voice tells the passengers. The steering wheel turns by itself as the taxi goes around the cart. A Baidu technician watches from the front passenger seat.
Baidu is China’s biggest competitor in a multibillion-dollar race with rival autonomous vehicle developers including Waymo of Alphabet Inc. and Cruise of General Motors Co. to turn their futuristic technology into a consumer product.
Baidu and its rival Pony.ai received China’s first driverless taxi licenses in April with a safety inspector on board. This comes 18 months after Waymo launched a driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona in October 2020.
Founded in 2000 as a search engine operator, Baidu has expanded into artificial intelligence, processor chips and other technologies. The company claims that its autonomous vehicles could, if successful, make driving cheaper, easier and safer.
“We believe that the main goal of autonomous driving is to reduce the number of human-caused traffic accidents,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s intelligent driving group.
Autonomous driving is one of many new technologies, from artificial intelligence to renewable energy, that Chinese companies are pouring billions of dollars into at the urging of the ruling Communist Party.
Beijing wants to join the US, Europe and Japan as a technology powerhouse to ensure its prosperity and global influence. This opens up opportunities for new inventions, but also fuels tensions with Washington and its allies, who see China as a strategic rival.
Baidu’s Apollo self-driving platform was launched in 2017, and the Apollo Go self-driving taxi service three years later.
The chauffeur-driven emergency taxi service was launched in 2020 and has expanded to Beijing, Shanghai and eight other cities. Apollo Go says it made 213,000 rides in the last quarter of last year, making it the world’s busiest self-driving taxi service.
For rides without a driver and an observer in the passenger seat, Apollo Go launched in the 60 square kilometers (23 square kilometers) Yizhuang District, an industrial area on the southeastern outskirts of Beijing with wide streets and few cyclists. pedestrians.
“It’s very convenient,” said Zhao Hui, 43, who uses a Baidu taxi in Yizhuang.
“It might seem a little safer” than a human driver, Zhao said. “Sometimes small objects come across, maybe those that people don’t notice. They can see them and stop them.”
Other developers include Deeproute.ai and AutoX in Shenzhen. Pony.ai, founded in 2016 with venture capital backing, conducts road tests of autonomous vehicles and semi-trailer trucks.
Industry plans are “very aggressive in getting robot taxis to the consumer,” said Owen Chen of S&P Global Mobility.
Automaker Geely, owner of Volvo Car, Geely, Lotus and Polestar, has announced plans to build autonomous vehicles with satellite communications. Network equipment manufacturer Huawei Technologies Ltd. works on self-driving mining and industrial vehicles.
The ruling party is pushing automation to bolster economic growth by boosting the productivity of its shrinking and aging workforce. China’s working-age population has fallen by 5 percent since its peak in 2011, and this trend is projected to continue.
“People are very expensive,” Wei said. “Once this public service no longer needs people, its cost can quickly drop.”
As for whether China can lead the global industry, “it’s a race at the moment,” said Pete Kelly, managing director of GlobalData Plc’s automotive division.
“But they could easily do that because of the way decisions are made and deployments are happening in China,” Kelly said.
McKinsey & Co. in 2019, China’s potential market for self-driving taxis, buses, trucks, and other equipment and software is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.
The earliest products are unlikely to recoup development costs, Kelly said, but could be “loss leaders” when selling other services.
Baidu says it already sells navigation and other technology to automakers. He forecasts total sales of 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) based on the agreements made so far, chairman Robin Li said in a conference call with reporters on May 26.
The company says it spent a total of 24.9 billion yuan ($3.9 billion) on research and development last year, but did not disclose how much of that amount went to autonomous vehicles. Baidu reported 10.2 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) in profit last year on 124.5 billion yuan ($19.5 billion) in revenue.
Baidu and its most advanced competitors have reached industry level four out of five possible technology levels. This means that their systems can operate without a driver, but must be pre-loaded with a detailed map. This limits the area where they can operate.
Lower levels of technology range from cruise control, a feature that has been available for decades, to Level 3, which allows hands-free highway driving. Unmanned robotic carts are already widely used in factories, warehouses and other highly controlled environments.
Once self-driving taxis are on the road, operators must gather information about pedestrians and local conditions based on daily driving, a labor-intensive process that will slow down the adoption of the technology.
For a maneuver such as a U-turn, the Apollo system tracks up to 200 vehicles, pedestrians and other potential obstacles up to 100 meters (110 yards) away, Baidu said.
Wei said Baidu would be happy to have foreign partners adapt its technology to their markets, but has no plans to export yet as it focuses on Chinese cities.
Wei says intersections are still a problem. Pedestrians in China are accustomed to drivers gradually making their way through the crowds at the crosswalk, turning on the green light, but the robotic car cannot do this.
“Our car will always be inferior to people and may not pass into the light,” Wei said.
Baidu launched its own self-driving car brand JIDU, which unveiled a concept car this month. Li said the company will target the family car market above 200,000 yuan ($30,000).
The company has also signed contracts with three Chinese electric vehicle brands to produce vehicles with embedded computers, radar and light sensors rather than bolted to the roof. Baidu says it is aiming for a top price of 480,000 yuan ($72,000) for the latest generation of taxis.
To encourage others to use Apollo, Baidu has made the platform open source and has signed 210 industry partners and 80,000 developers to build products based on it, it says.
Apollo Go says it plans to expand driverless taxi services to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030.
Compared to a human driver, “the difference is small,” said Zhang Zhihua, 29, an interior designer who uses Baidu’s self-driving taxis in Yizhuang. “If you don’t look ahead and play on your mobile phone, the feeling is exactly the same.”