Chinese consumers eager to test 'robotaxis'

Baidu's Apollo "robotaxi" on a street in Changsha, China last Thursday. As the country challenges US tech dominance, Chinese players like Baidu have launched robotaxi pilot projects in several Chinese cities.
Baidu's Apollo "robotaxi" on a street in Changsha, China last Thursday. As the country challenges US tech dominance, Chinese players like Baidu have launched robotaxi pilot projects in several Chinese cities.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SHANGHAI • Chinese entrants in the race to put autonomous vehicles on the road are bringing "robotaxis" online.

It will still be years before cars that operate completely without human intervention are unleashed, owing to lingering technological, regulatory and safety hurdles.

But as China challenges US tech dominance, Chinese players like Baidu, Alibaba-backed AutoX and ride-sharing king DiDi Chuxing have launched robotaxi pilot projects in several Chinese cities.

Chinese consumers - known for eagerly embracing digital solutions - are lining up for a spin in DiDi Chuxing's self-developed autonomous taxis at a Shanghai pilot project launched in June.

Underlining the concept's work-in-progress nature, a DiDi employee occupies the driver's seat, ready to take the wheel if needed.

Ms Da Xuan, 24, a social media worker, leapt at the chance for a taste of the future.

"I heard companies like Uber or Tesla were doing autonomous driving, so I was curious what Chinese companies were doing," she said. "(The ride) was very smooth."

Test subjects use DiDi's mobile app to plot a ride through suburban roads in a Volvo fitted with a crown of tech hardware topped by a spinning radar device.

The vehicle accelerates, brakes, signals and turns on its own in real traffic. Any impromptu deviation from the plotted route requires human intervention.

Mr Meng Xing, chief operating officer of DiDi's autonomous driving firm, said its AI system "is already smart enough to handle most situations", and that safety drivers almost never need to intervene.

AutoX's chief executive Xiao Jianxiong expects a "sizeable" deployment of the cars - without safety drivers - could take place in two to three years.

Test subjects use DiDi's mobile app to plot a ride through suburban roads in a Volvo fitted with a crown of tech hardware topped by a spinning radar device. The vehicle accelerates, brakes, signals and turns on its own in real traffic.

"It's just a matter of time and effort to make it happen," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2020, with the headline 'Chinese consumers eager to test 'robotaxis''. Subscribe