China presses the accelerator on driverless vehicles

In some Chinese cities, robotaxis can now be hailed through ride-hailing apps for travel to destinations such as subway stations, commercial areas and residential communities.


Driverless road-paving vehicles operate in Hefei, Anhui province. [LIU YUCAI/FOR CHINA DAILY]

June 30, 2023

BEIJING – Tech advances, policy support point road to the future

Driverless vehicles may sound like something from science fiction, but they are racing into daily life sooner than many people expected, experts said.

These vehicles have immense potential to be a revolutionary technology to transform lives and open a new chapter in intelligent transportation, they added.

In some Chinese cities, robotaxis can now be hailed through ride-hailing apps for travel to destinations such as subway stations, commercial areas and residential communities. Users only need to input the pickup and drop-off points and the number of passengers. A few minutes later, a self-driving taxi approaches.

The commercialization of autonomous driving technology will gain momentum in China in the next few years, buoyed by continuous technological innovation and considerable policy support, the experts said, adding that the nation is at the global forefront of research and development and the use of such cutting-edge technology.

Chinese technology companies are stepping up efforts to accelerate the commercial use of self-driving vehicles.

For example, in March, local authorities in Beijing granted autonomous driving permits to tech giant Baidu and self-driving startup to run fully driverless robotaxis on open roads in the Chinese capital, with no driver or safety operator in the car.

The two companies are each allowed to provide up to 10 autonomous vehicles in a designated area of 60 square kilometers in Yizhuang, a southern suburb. In case of emergency, a remote safety supervisor takes control of the vehicle via an online assistance platform.

Baidu recently announced it had obtained licensing for commercial operation of its fully driverless ride-hailing service in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Its robotaxis are authorized to provide such a service with no safety operator in the car. With this new license, Baidu’s Apollo Go robotaxis will be allowed to operate across an area of 188 sq km in Shenzhen from 7 am to 10 pm daily.

This year, Baidu plans to put an additional 200 fully autonomous driving robotaxis into operation nationwide and build the world’s largest fully driverless ride-hailing service area. Robin Li, co-founder and CEO of Baidu, said the company aims to expand services on its autonomous ride-hailing platform Apollo Go to 65 cities in 2025, and to 100 cities in 2030.

“The massive cost reduction will enable us to deploy tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles across China. We are moving toward a future where taking a robotaxi will be half the cost of taking a cab today,” Li added. Apollo Go currently covers more than 10 cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong.

In recent years, China has introduced a series of policies to promote the development and commercialization of self-driving technology. In November, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Public Security unveiled a draft guideline to expand road tests for autonomous driving vehicles nationwide.

In August, China released its first national draft guideline on the use of self-driving vehicles for public transportation. That month, authorities in Wuhan, Hubei province, and Yongchuan district, Chongqing, granted Baidu the first permits issued in China to charge fares for fully driverless ride-hailing services in designated areas.

As autonomous driving technology continues to mature, the sector is poised to consolidate in coming years. A report by global consultancy IHS Markit said the market size of China’s self-driving taxi services is expected to surpass 1.3 trillion yuan ($181.5 billion) by 2030, accounting for 60 percent of the ride-hailing market nationwide.

Lyu Jinghong, an analyst of intelligent mobility at research company BloombergNEF, said, “Continuous testing on public roads, eased regulations, as well as cost reductions in autonomous vehicle manufacturing, will help accelerate the deployment and commercialization of self-driving cars.”

Noting that China has caught up with the United States in developing autonomous driving, Lyu said clear regulations at national level will encourage local governments and autonomous driving companies to quicken the use of self-driving technology, which is crucial for achieving commercialization targets.

BloombergNEF’s 2022 Electric Vehicle Outlook said China will operate the world’s largest robotaxi fleet with some 12 million autonomous vehicles by 2040, followed by the US, with about 7 million such vehicles.

Other Chinese tech companies, such as, WeRide and Didi Autonomous Driving, the self-driving technology arm of Didi Global, are stepping up efforts to launch self-driving taxi services in an attempt to bolster large-scale commercial use of growing transportation solutions.

In April, announced it was the first and only company to receive a permit to operate fully driverless robotaxi services in an 803 sq km area in the Nansha district of Guangzhou.

A passenger travels in a driverless car at Baidu Technology Park in Beijing. [DU LIANYI/CHINA DAILY]

Lou Tiancheng, cofounder and chief technology officer of, said, “The inclusion of autonomous vehicles in the unified and standardized management of taxis proves that both government policy and the public are increasingly accepting robotaxis as a form of everyday transportation.” has signed partnerships with OnTime, Chinese carmaker GAC’s ride-hailing app, and Caocao, another ride-hailing platform, in an effort to deploy more robotaxis on the streets and gradually improve public trust in autonomous driving. As of April, the startup had accumulated more than 21 million km of autonomous driving globally and nearly 200,000 fee-charging robotaxi orders.

Yang Diange, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Vehicle and Mobility, said, “L4 self-driving technology will first be deployed in taxis, trucks and some designated areas, and large-scale application of such technology in private vehicles might be seen by 2030.”

Commercial operation of self-driving vehicles will promote the iteration and innovation of technologies, and help enterprises explore reasonable business models, thus allowing autonomous driving technologies to create more value, Yang added.

In addition, Didi Autonomous Driving started commercial operations in Huadu district, Guangzhou, by accepting fee-based orders in March. It has deepened its partnership with GAC Aion New Energy Automobile Co, a Chinese new energy vehicle maker, to establish a joint venture to mass-produce electric robotaxis.

Jiang Zheng, a self-driving expert at the research and development center affiliated with GAC Group, said: “Autonomous driving is definitely the future development direction of the automobile industry. It not only solves traffic safety problems, but also greatly improves the efficiency of transportation, brings economic benefits, and liberates people from repetitive driving.”

Zhang Xiang, a researcher at the Jiangxi New Energy Technology Institute, said the manufacturing costs of driverless vehicle components, such as lidar sensor systems, have fallen as advances have been made in self-driving technology and related industrial chains have matured. Lidar, short for light detection and ranging, is a sensing method that uses laser light to determine the presence, shape and distance of objects.

A report in 2021 from global management consulting company McKinsey& Co said that by 2030 China will become the world’s largest market for self-driving vehicles, with revenue from sales of such new vehicles and mobility services expected to exceed $500 billion.

Li Xinbo, an automotive industry expert at China Auto Information Technology Co, said more efforts should be made to strengthen construction of intelligent transportation infrastructure, such as the 5G-enabled vehicle-to-everything system, which supports the transfer of information from a vehicle to moving parts of the traffic system to improve efficiency.

Huge potential

In addition to robotaxis, autonomous driving trucks can now be seen in designated areas of China, such as ports, mines and industrial parks. Experts said there is huge development potential for driverless vehicles in the logistics sector, and the core value of self-driving trucks is to liberate manpower when there is a serious shortage of drivers in that sector.

Autonomous trucking startup Plus is increasing mass production and global deployment of its autonomous driving technology. It has developed autonomous trucks in collaboration with FAW Jiefang, China’s oldest and largest truck manufacturer, and completed a driverless L4 truck demonstration on Wufengshan highway, Jiangsu province, in June 2021.

David Liu, CEO and cofounder of Plus, said: “Thanks to the convergence of machine learning and artificial intelligence, big data, mobility and advanced sensors, the autonomous revolution is on the horizon. Trucks are one of the best applications of autonomous driving in the near term, and this application is close to becoming reality.”

Jiang said that compared with self-driving passenger-carrying robotaxis, routes for autonomous trucks are more likely to be fixed to provide certain conditions for the large-scale commercialization of autonomous driving technology.

“Logistics companies see rising demand for autonomous trucks, which can help increase work efficiency, save labor costs, and reduce delivery and transportation costs,” Jiang said, adding that he is bullish about the prospects for autonomous trucks.

Wang Bo, research manager at market consultancy International Data Corp, said there have been significant improvements in autonomous driving technologies covering computer chips, lidar sensors, cameras and related computing capacities.

Moreover, fast-growing generative AI technology, which refers to algorithms trained with huge amounts of data that can generate content such as images, text, audio and video, and is the key technology underpinning ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot, is expected to be applied to electric and assisted-driving cars.

Smart electric vehicle company Jidu Auto, a joint venture established by Baidu and carmaker Geely Holding Group, said it will integrate Ernie Bot, a large language model and ChatGPT-like product launched by Baidu, into its cars to develop the world’s first large language model powered by AI interactive experience for smart vehicles.

Xia Yiping, CEO of Jidu Auto, said intelligent driving features are a key selling point for the manufacturer’s cars, as they boast years of intelligent driving research and development from Baidu.

In March, Chinese carmaker Changan launched its Yida sedan, the nation’s first mass-produced model to feature Ernie Bot. The vehicle will improve users’ interactivity with itself, Changan said.

Ouyang Minggao, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a professor at Tsinghua University, said the worldwide frenzy surrounding ChatGPT will have a far-reaching impact on intelligent driving this year, making the programming of self-driving technology simpler, and leading to a new AI revolution.

A driverless bus operates in Wuhan, Hubei province. [ZHAO JUN/FOR CHINA DAILY]

An Apollo Go robotaxi operated by technology giant Baidu. [PHOTO/XINHUA]

A driverless truck carries cargo at a port in Rizhao, Shandong province. [PHOTO/CHINA NEWS SERVICE]

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