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Taxis without chatters or any drivers are expanding in China

Across the streets of southern Beijing, China’s answer to search engine giant Google is paving the way for driverless cars in the world’s largest electric vehicle market.


Update on:
10:10 am on December 20, 2022

An automated robotaxi equipped with Baidu's Apollo autonomous driving platform is seen in Beijing, China.  (Bloomberg)
An automated robotaxi equipped with Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving platform is seen in Beijing, China. (Bloomberg)

Baidu Inc.’s Apollo program, which allows customers to call and drive fully automated robotic taxis, has taken more than 1.4 million public journeys and is expanding its network to cover dozens of square miles over 10 major cities including Wuhan and Chongqing. By next year, the company wants to have the largest autonomous service area in the world — an ambitious goal considering it needs to complete with General Motors Co.’s rapidly expanding robotaxi unit, Cruise and Waymo are based in California. Baidu is also being challenged in China by rivals such as WeRide and Pony. Who.

The speed of development is on display at a company showroom in Yizhuang district, where an early self-driving model – a compact red boxy 4×4 fitted with steel beams to hold the camera and sensor turn the lid – contrasts with a sleek, white SUV expected to debut next year. Nearby, a room outside Willy Wonka’s factory is wallpapered from floor to ceiling with QR codes used for training and testing vehicle systems and equipment.

While the technology behind the cars is exciting, driving a car across Beijing is surprisingly standard. Using Baidu’s blue-and-white app to book a ride on a recent afternoon, a driverless taxi arrived within minutes, and the fare, including promotional discounts, was as low as 4 yuan (65 cents). ) for a 10-minute journey.

The company’s robotaxi fleet uses Arcfox’s mass-produced aT model coupled with a range of sensors. The car carefully obeys the speed limit, merges into early traffic and turns gently on the wide, mostly deserted avenues around its base. When a cyclist suddenly jumps from the sidewalk, the robotaxi will apply the brakes until he rushes over.

Because Baidu is currently using conventional models designed for car drivers, sitting in the back gives a terrifying image of the steering wheel spinning as if it were being turned by a ghost. The screen in the rear cabin adds an effect, showing the same images as the interpreting vehicle — pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles, buses and trains, all displayed as shapes that look like More Monopoly game pieces. Another 10 minute ride through town was smooth, quiet and drama-free as well.

However, for Chinese operators, there is a potential obstacle ahead. In October, the United States imposed stricter controls on the export of certain chips and chip-making equipment to the country to prevent it from developing capabilities that could pose a threat. military threats, such as supercomputers and artificial intelligence.

Bao Linghao, analyst at Trivium China Ltd. hampering efforts by Baidu and local rivals to keep up with Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, which has led the way in vehicle mileage tested. “In the long run, that’s going to be a big deal,” Bao said. If China’s AI computing power is limited, it will put Chinese AI companies at a disadvantage in the first place.”

Baidu, which has nearly three times the test mileage of its main domestic competitors, sees limited immediate impact. Ultimately, the company expects China’s auto sector to become less dependent on imports.

“For the part of our businesses that need cutting-edge chips, we already have enough stock on hand to support our business going forward,” said Robin Li, president of Baidu.

For now, Baidu — which is increasingly shifting its focus to artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles after its core ad revenue declined — sees robotaxis as its best short-term opportunity. It is preparing to ramp up production of the Apollo product line and has won contracts with cities like Guangzhou to build digital infrastructure for city streets. Li said investors can also expect a “significant revenue contribution” from Baidu’s automotive solutions businesses, which mainly involve the sale of driver-assistance software, starting from year 2024.

First published date: December 20, 2022, 10:10 am IST


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