August 22, 2022
BEIJING – Wider use allowed in cities as technology advances quickly
Zhang Xinlei, a 28-year-old software engineer from Yizhuang, a Beijing suburb, often hails a driverless robotaxi by using ride-hailing apps on his mobile phone for trips such as a night out with friends.
He said all he needs to do is input the pick-up and drop-off points and the number of passengers. A few minutes later, a self-driving taxi approaches－with no need for a human operator behind the steering wheel, but a safety operator sits in the front passenger seat to ensure safety in case of emergency.
“The vehicle runs smoothly with no shaking or sudden braking. It can identify stop signs and traffic lights, automatically slow down and finally come to a halt,” Zhang said. “I never thought I would experience self-driving vehicles myself. It’s very convenient and safe.”
Large-scale commercialization of self-driving technology could become a reality sooner than expected. Technology companies in China have accelerated steps to conduct commercial operations of autonomous, so-called robotaxi services, given that policies have become more favorable in some cities, industry experts said.
Tech giant Baidu recently announced that it has obtained the country’s first permits to offer commercial, fully driverless robotaxi services to the public on open roads.
Apollo Go, Baidu’s autonomous ride-hailing service arm, has been authorized to charge fares for robotaxi services－without human drivers and safety operators in the car－in some areas, with the latest being Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, and Chongqing.
The new permits, which were granted by authorities in Wuhan and in Yongchuan district, Chongqing, will allow Baidu to provide paid services for fully driverless robotaxis in designated areas in the two megacities, with five self-driving vehicles operating in each city.
Experts said China is taking the lead in the research and development as well as the application of self-driving technologies, and it is the first country to allow fully driverless paid robotaxi operations.
“This is a tremendous qualitative change,” said Wei Dong, vice-president and chief safety operation officer of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, adding that the permits are a key milestone on the path to the turning point when the industry can finally roll out fully autonomous driving services at scale.
To receive the permits, Baidu’s robotaxis have undergone multiple steps of testing and licensing, starting from tests carried out with a safety operator in the driver’s seat to a safety operator in the passenger seat, before finally receiving authorization to operate autonomous vehicles with no human drivers or operators in the vehicle, the company said.
Wei said Baidu is concentrating on expanding its commercial robotaxi pilot services in first and second-tier cities at an early stage, and will try to offer such services in urban scenic areas across the nation.
Apollo Go has robotaxis operating in 10 cities－Beijing; Shanghai; Chongqing; Wuhan; Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province; Changsha, capital of Hunan province; Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province; Yangquan in Shanxi province; and Wuzhen of Tongxiang city in Zhejiang province. It has received more than 1 million orders, making Baidu the world’s largest autonomous mobility services provider. But it only charges fares or conducts commercial operations in Beijing, Chongqing, Wuhan and Yangquan.
Officials have high hopes for the market as China has recently released the first national draft guideline on the use of self-driving vehicles for public transport, a key move in accelerating the large-scale commercialization of autonomous driving technology and encouraging local authorities to formulate relevant management policies, experts added.
The country will encourage the use of autonomous vehicles such as buses in an enclosed Bus Rapid Transit system. Such systems are designed to have better capacity and reliability than conventional bus systems through such features as roadways dedicated to buses. It also will encourage autonomous vehicles to offer taxi services under simple and relatively controllable scenarios, according to draft rules published by the Ministry of Transport on Aug 8. Authorities are soliciting public opinion on the guideline through Sept 7.
Local authorities have also rolled out a series of supportive policies to promote the commercialization of autonomous driving technology in recent years. For instance, Shenzhen started allowing fully autonomous vehicles, without human drivers, to run on certain roads starting Aug 1, when a local regulation on smart and internet-connected vehicles went into effect.
The regulation also sets rules for liability in car accidents that involve autonomous vehicles with or without drivers.
In July, Beijing launched China’s first pilot area for commercial autonomous driving vehicle services. Baidu and self-driving startup Pony.ai are the first enterprises granted permission to offer paid services.They will also provide up to 30 self-driving vehicles without a safety operator behind the steering wheel for commercial services within an area of 60 square kilometers in Yizhuang, the Beijing suburb. However, a supervisor will sit in the front passenger seat to ensure safety. In April, the two companies received permits to operate driverless taxis on open roads in Beijing.
Yang Diange, a professor from the School of Vehicle and Mobility at Tsinghua University, said: “Level 4 self-driving technology will first be deployed in taxis and trucks and in some designated areas, and large-scale application of such technology in private vehicles might be seen by 2030.”
Level 4 autonomy means the car can drive by itself in most conditions without a human backup driver. It is one level below Level 5, which is generally described as full automation, able to drive by itself in all conditions.
Yang noted the 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.
As autonomous driving technology continues to mature, the sector is poised to witness robust growth in the coming years. The market size of China’s self-driving taxi services is expected to surpass 1.3 trillion yuan ($191.4 billion) by 2030, accounting for 60 percent of the country’s ride-hailing market by then, said a report by global consultancy IHS Markit.
The revenue of China’s ride-hailing sector is projected to rise to 862 billion yuan in 2025 and 2.25 trillion yuan in 2030, with a compound annual growth rate of 28 percent, the report added. It is noteworthy that the robotaxi market will eventually be dominated by two to three major service providers, with the top providers occupying more than 40 percent of total market share.
Self-driving startup Pony.ai is beefing up efforts to push the commercial application of self-driving technologies. The company announced recently it has formed a partnership with ride-hailing platform Caocao in an effort to encourage the use of robotaxi services in Beijing.
Beginning Aug 3, passengers in the capital have been able to hail driverless robotaxis provided by Pony.ai through the Caocao mobile app and its mini-program in a designated area of 60 square kilometers in Yizhuang, with 250 pick-up and drop-off locations. The company has completed over 900,000 self-driving trips.
Pony.ai also has received permits to operate 100 autonomous vehicles as traditional taxis in Guangzhou’s Nansha district, charging fares based on local standard taxi pricing for its robotaxi services.
More than 500 sites, including residential areas, commercial buildings, transportation hubs, schools and hospitals, have been covered. The service is available on weekdays from 8:30 am to 10:30 pm, and passengers can pay for rides via Alipay or WeChat Pay.
“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,” said Lou Tiancheng, co-founder and chief technical officer of Pony.ai. The company also plans to expand its commercialized robotaxi footprint to Shanghai and Shenzhen next year.
The application of self-driving technologies is not limited to robotaxis, but can also be used at mines, airports, highways and distribution parks, said Wang Bo, research manager of market consultancy International Data Corp, adding there have been significant improvements in autonomous driving technologies covering computer chips, lidar sensors, cameras and related computing capacities.
Lidar, short for light detection and ranging, is a sensing method that uses laser light to determine the presence, shape and distance of objects.
Li Xinbo, an automotive industry expert from China Auto Information Technology Co Ltd, said more efforts should be made to strengthen the construction of intelligent transportation infrastructure, such as the 5G-enabled, vehicle-to-everything (V2X) system, which supports the transfer of information from a vehicle to moving parts of the traffic system as a way to improve traffic efficiency.
Continuous testing on public roads, easing regulations as well as cost reductions in autonomous vehicle manufacturing will help accelerate the deployment and commercialization of self-driving cars, said Lyu Jinghong, an intelligent mobility analyst at research firm BloombergNEF.
“China has caught up with the United States, with Wuhan and Chongqing allowing driverless vehicles to carry passengers and charge for such services. More Chinese cities are expected to follow the two cities by gradually allowing for robotaxi tests and commercialization, which will help autonomous driving developers improve their technologies and explore business models,” she said.
According to BloombergNEF’s 2022 electric vehicle outlook, China will operate the world’s largest robotaxi fleet with about 12 million units by 2040, followed by the US, with around 7 million autonomous vehicles.