Chinese internet giant Baidu has obtained licenses to provide a fully driverless commercial robotic taxi service, without a human driver, in Chongqing and Wuhan through Apollo Go, the company’s autonomous ride-hailing unit.
Baidu’s wins in Wuhan and Chongqing come a few months after the company was licensed to provide driverless taxi services to the public on Beijing’s public roads. The difference here is that the Beijing service is still not a commercial service — Baidu offers free driverless rides in the name of R&D and public acceptance — and Beijing’s license still requires a human operator in the front passenger seat of the vehicle.
When Baidu launches in Wuhan and Chongqing, it will be the first time an autonomous vehicle company can offer a fully self-driving taxi service in China, Baidu claimed. Meanwhile, in the US, Cruise recently started offering a commercial driverless service in San Francisco, and Waymo has been offering one in Arizona since 2020.
“This is a huge qualitative change,” Wei Dong, vice president and chief safety operations officer of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, said in a statement. “We believe these permits are an important milestone on the road to the inflection point when the industry can finally roll out fully autonomous driving at scale.”
In Wuhan, Baidu’s service will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., covering an area of 13 square kilometers in the city’s economic and technological development zone, known as China’s “Auto City.” Chongqing’s service runs from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM in an area of 30 square kilometers in Yongchuan District. Each city will have a fleet of five Apollo 5th-generation robotic axes, according to Baidu.
The zones where Baidu will operate are not densely populated and have many new, wide roads that make it easier to operate autonomous systems. Both cities provide favorable regulatory and technological environments for Baidu to launch its first commercial driverless service. In Chongqing, the Yongchuan district was a pilot area for autonomous driving, where 30 robotic axes have accumulated 1 million kilometers of test drives.
The zone in Wuhan where Apollo Go will operate has had 321 kilometers of roads renewed for AV testing since 2021, including 106 kilometers covered by 5G-powered vehicle-to-everything (V2X) infrastructure. AVs can rely on V2X technology to collect real-time information about their environment and share those observations with other vehicles or infrastructure, essentially giving the robot axis another form of sensor to fall back on, in addition to the built-in lidar, radar and cameras. The V2X infrastructure also helps Baidu to monitor vehicles remotely and control the vehicles if needed.
Last month, Baidu unveiled the designs for its sixth-generation electric robotic axi, the Apollo RT6 EV, which is a cross between an SUV and a minivan that comes with a detachable steering wheel. The company said it was able to reduce production costs by developing the battery-electric architecture in-house, bringing the cost per vehicle to $37,000 per unit. This will help Baidu test and deploy the RT6 on a small scale next year, and expand on a large scale by 2024.
In addition to the new service in Wuhan and Chongqing and the unmanned service in Beijing, Apollo Go is also present in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Changsha, Cangzhou, Yangquan and Wuzhen. Baidu said it plans to expand its ride-hailing service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030. By the end of this year, Baidu expects to add another 300 Apollo 5th-generation robotic axes to its existing fleet. the company said.