Chinese internet giant Baidu has acquired licenses to offer a fully driverless, human-less commercial robotaxi service in Chongqing and Wuhan through ride-hailing firm Apollo Go’s autonomous unit.
Baidu’s win in Wuhan and Chongqing came months after the company won permission to provide driverless ordering services to the public on Beijing’s open roads. The difference is that the service in Beijing is still not a commercial service – Baidu offers free driverless rides in the name of R&D and public acceptance – and the Beijing license still requires a human operator in the passenger seat of the vehicle.
When Baidu starts operating in Wuhan and Chongqing, it will be the first time an autonomous vehicle company will be able to offer a driverless ride-hailing service in China, Baidu claimed. Meanwhile, in the US, Cruise recently began offering a commercial driverless service in San Francisco, and Waymo has been offering it in Arizona since 2020.
“This is a remarkable qualitative change,” Wei Dong, vice president and head of safety operations of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, said in a statement. “We believe these permits are a key milestone on the way to a tipping point where the industry can finally deploy fully autonomous driving services at scale.”
In Wuhan, Baidu’s service will operate from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., covering a 13-square-kilometer area in the city’s economic and technological development zone known as China’s “Auto City.” The Chongqing service will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in a 30-square-kilometer area in Yongchuan District. Each city will have a fleet of five Apollo 5th generation robotaxis, according to Baidu.
The areas where Baidu will operate are not densely populated and have many new wide roads that make autonomous systems easier to operate. Both cities provide a favorable regulatory and technological environment for Baidu to launch its first commercial driverless service. In Chongqing, Yongchuan District is a pilot area for autonomous driving, in which 30 robotaxis completed 1 million kilometers of test driving.
The Wuhan area where Apollo Go will operate has rehabilitated 321 kilometers of roads for AV testing since 2021, including 106 kilometers worth of 5G-powered vehicle-to-everything (V2X) infrastructure. AVs can rely on V2X technology to gather real-time information about the environment around them and share those perceptions with other vehicles or infrastructure, essentially giving the robotaxis another form of sensor to rely on besides its onboard lidar , radar and cameras. The V2X infrastructure also helps Baidu remotely monitor vehicles and pilot vehicles if necessary.
Last month, Baidu revealed designs for its sixth-generation electric robotaxi, 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 manufacturing costs by developing the battery’s electrical architecture in-house, bringing the cost per vehicle to $37,000 per unit. This will help Baidu reach the point of small-scale testing and deployment of RT6 by next year, and will expand to large-scale in 2024.
In addition to the new service in Wuhan and Chongqing and the driverless 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 300 Apollo 5th generation robotaxis to its existing fleet, the company said.