Baidu becomes the first driverless taxi service provider in China

We may have entered a new era of autonomous driving.
Ameya Paleja
Baidu’s fully driverless robotaxi
Baidu’s fully driverless robotaxiBaidu
  • Baidu's autonomous driving technology is aimed to be the Android for automated vehicles
  • The robotaxis will operate in designated areas of the city during designated times
  • The cars are equipped with V2X technology that allows them to be operated remotely if needed.

The cities of Chongqing and Wuhan have granted permission to Chinese tech giant Baidu to offer commercial, fully autonomous robotaxi services, a company press release said.

Recent reports of accidents involving autonomous driving systems may have you wondering if we are decades away from safety with this technology. The news of cities granting permissions for commercial services may sound like going against the run of events and even ambitious.

However, these small steps need to be taken to make progress with such advanced technology. In the U.S., Alphabet's Waymo has been offering driverless taxi services in certain parts of Arizona since 2020, and Cruise recently launched a similar service in San Francisco. Baidu's moment of glory has also come after it has demonstrated test mileage of over 20 million miles (~32 million km).

Baidu's autonomous driving technology

Launched in 2017, Baidu's Apollo autonomous driving technology has been likened to "Android for automated vehicles". The company has opened up the treasure trove of data it has on automated driving to help others use its platform as a basis for building autonomous vehicles. The data it gets in the process allows the company to refine its technology further.

The company is deploying these advances in its fleet of robotaxis called Apollo Go, which already has a presence in cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Changsha, Cangzhou, Yangquan, and Wuzhen, TechCrunch reported.

How will the taxi services be offered?

The services will be offered using a fleet of five 5th generation Apollo taxis in each city. In Wuhan, the services will be available from 9 am to 5 pm in the five square miles (13 sq. km ) area of the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone. In Chongqing, the services will be available from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm in the 11.5 sq. mile (30 sq km) area of the Yongchuan District, the press release said.

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Earlier this month, the city of Beijing also granted Baidu the permit to run its driverless robotaxi services. However, Baidu could only offer free rides to people as part of its R&D efforts and gauge public response to its technology. More importantly, the Beijing permission comes with a rider that a human operator is seated in the front seat of the vehicle. However, for its commercial services, this wouldn't be a requirement.

Currently, the company's fifth-generation cars are on the roads. Apart from the radar, Lidar, and other cameras onboard these vehicles, the vehicles are also equipped with V2X (vehicle to everything) technology, TechCrunch said in its report. Using 5G communication, this technology allows the robotaxi to access information from its environment as well as other vehicles and infrastructure or even be remotely piloted, if necessary.

Last month, the company also unveiled plans for its sixth generation car, Apollo RT6, which is a cross between an SUV and minivan, and its steering wheel is detachable. More importantly, the company has managed to trim down production costs to $37,000 a unit. After small-scale testing and deployment, the company plans a large-scale rollout by 2024, an important part of its plan to roll out robotaxi services in 100 cities by 2030.