Search giant Baidu Inc (百度) and Toyota Motor Corp-backed Pony.ai Inc (小馬智行) were granted the first batch of licenses from Beijing regulators to start open-road autonomous commercial driving operations in a part of the city equivalent to the size of Manhattan.
The pilot licenses will allow a fleet of about 100 cars from the two companies to travel around the 60km2 so-called Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area, about a 30-minute drive from Tiananmen Square, state media reports said.
Baidu received 67 of the permits and will allow its robotaxis to range between more than 600 pickup and dropoff points from 7am and 10pm, it said in a statement yesterday.
The area includes commercial and residential precincts.
Pony.ai is to set up about 200 points in the zone, running from 8:30am to 10:30pm, the Guangzhou-based company said.
“Beijing, as the capital city and the first one to allow fare charging for robotaxi rides, will help companies accelerate autonomous vehicle deployment and test out and explore a business model,” BloombergNEF analyst Jinghong Lyu said. “It will also benefit industry players across the country as other local governments may follow Beijing.”
Beijing is one of the first places in the world to embark on such a concentrated trial of robotaxis in a commercial environment. Baidu and Pony.ai will be able to charge consumers for the rides, although detail around pricing and payment methods were not immediately available.
However, totally replacing drivers in China, where labor costs are low and the government has a keen interest in maintaining near full employment, would be tough, and not just from a business sense. The nation’s growing, but relatively inexperienced driving population makes for complex and often unpredictable traffic conditions, while varied road rules and street signs across provinces bring more challenges to the technology application.
“The issuing of the permits signifies that the development of autonomous driving in China has completed the testing stage to begin wider commercial exploration,” Baidu said.
Baidu is a leader in the research and deployment of autonomous driving in China, already the world’s biggest market for electric vehicles and car-sharing. It has teamed up with automakers like BAIC Motor Corp (北京汽車) and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co (吉利控股集團) to develop autonomous and electric vehicles, while expanding a nascent chip business beyond just in-house applications.
Founded in 2016, Pony.ai develops and operates self-driving fleets in the US and China, and has secured funding from Toyota and China FAW Group Co (中國一汽集團).
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