Chinese internet giant Baidu has received a license to offer fully driverless commercial robo-taxi services in Chongqing and Wuhan through the company’s autonomous ride-hailing division, Apollo Go, without the need for human drivers.
Baidu’s victories in Wuhan and Chongqing come months after the company won a license to offer driverless ride-hailing services to the public on open roads in Beijing. The difference here is that Beijing’s service is still not a commercial one – Baidu offers free driverless service 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 member.
Baidu claims that when Baidu launches in Wuhan and Chongqing, it will be the first time a self-driving car company will be able to offer a fully driverless ride-hailing service in China. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Cruise recently started offering self-driving commercial services in San Francisco, and Waymo has been offering self-driving commercial services 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 licenses are key milestones at an inflection point for the industry to finally be able to roll out fully autonomous services at scale.”
In Wuhan, Baidu’s service will run from 9 am to 5 pm, covering a 13-square-kilometer area in the city’s Economic and Technological Development Zone, known as China’s “Auto City.” Chongqing’s service hours are from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm and operate within a 30 square kilometer area of Yongchuan District. According to Baidu, each city will have a fleet of five Apollo fifth-generation robotaxis.
The area where Baidu will operate is not densely populated and has many new, wide roads that make it easier to operate autonomous systems. Both cities provide a favorable regulatory and technological environment for Baidu to launch its first commercial driverless service. In Chongqing, Yongchuan District has become an autonomous driving test area, with 30 autonomous taxis driving a total of 1 million kilometers.
Since 2021, the Wuhan area, where Apollo Go will operate, has transformed 321 kilometers of roads for testing autonomous vehicles, including 106 kilometers of roads covered by 5G-powered vehicle-to-everything (V2X) infrastructure. Self-driving cars can rely on V2X technology to gather real-time information about their surroundings and share those perceptions with other vehicles or infrastructure, essentially providing robo-taxi with another form of sensor in addition to onboard lidar, radar, and outside the camera. The V2X infrastructure also helps Baidu monitor vehicles remotely and drive them when necessary.
Last month, Baidu unveiled the design of its sixth-generation electric taxi, the Apollo RT6 EV, a hybrid between an SUV and a minivan with a detachable steering wheel. The company said it was able to reduce production costs by developing a battery-electric architecture in-house, bringing the cost per vehicle to $37,000 per unit. This will help Baidu test and deploy RT6 on a small scale by next year and scale to large scale by 2024.
In addition to new services in Wuhan and Chongqing and driverless services in Beijing, Apollo Go also operates 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. Baidu expects to add another 300 Apollo 5th gen robotaxis to its existing fleet by the end of this year, the company said.