By Jesús Centeno
Beijing, Apr 28 (EFE).- Driverless taxis are now a reality in China, where one can use one of them to go around suburbs on the outskirts of cities such as Beijing, with a boom in self-driving cars expected to take over the country over the next few years.
Companies such as tech giant Baidu – which runs the most popular search engine in China, with Google being banned – had obtained permission in late 2021 to charge for rides in their robotaxis, a practice already being carried out in the United States, set to become the Asian country’s main competitor in the sector.
An EFE correspondent took part in a demonstration ride where the car moved without the help of the manual accelerator, driving wheel or indicators, as the vehicle changes speed and stops on the basis of big data, which decides how to drive or interact with the passengers.
The taxi does not move until all the doors are completely closed and the passengers have put on their seat belts, while an autonomous navigation system switches on, using 5G internet connection to receive data about the surroundings and connected with motion-detection cameras.
Officials at Baidu’s Apollo tech park in Beijing explained that anyone living in the specific areas can summon a robotaxi to go to work, using the Luobo Kuaipao app, similar to Didi, the Chinese equivalent of Uber.
The tariffs are similar to Didi’s premium service: around 58 yuan ($8.81) for a 10-kms trip.
Moreover, the cars are equipped with an assistive technology, which makes the vehicle stop in case of any malfunction at the nearest safe point until it can be picked up.
Company representatives said during the presentation, which took place on roads close to the tech park near Beijing, that the robotaxis had been tested for over 27 million kilometers without registering any accident.
Right now it is mandatory for the car to carry a safety driver on the driving seat to monitor the trips, but Baidu announced on Thursday that 10 of their autonomous taxis would soon be able to ply in a 60 square kms area in Beijing’s secluded Yizhuang district,
Apart from Beijing, seven other cities are also offering Baidu’s robotaxi service – named Apollo Go in English – and the company expects the number to go up to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 by 2030.
The taxis are using the Hongqi EV model, an SUV jointly produced by Baidu and FAW which is classified as level 4 out of the 5 levels that mark self-driving vehicles.
For developing fifth-generation vehicles, the brand is using technology by Chinese carmakers such as WM Motor and Aion and Arcfox, owned by state-run BAIC.
In June 2021, BAIC announced that it would soon manufacture one thousand low-cost robotaxis, priced at around 500,000 yuan (around $76,000), every year.
China is seeking to lead in the development of robotaxis in a technological competition with the US, where companies such as Waymo and Lyft are already trying out similar products in a market that is expected to grow at an annual rate of 136 percent over the next decade, according to a study by Reportlinker.
The firm said that the market’s growth would be driven by the high demand in passenger transport vehicles, tech development in the automobile sector, growing demand for efficient public transport and infrastructure development.
Baidu’s own estimates present a staggering picture, with the market expected to cross 1.3 trillion yuan (nearly $200 billion) within a few years.
The company is not the only one in the fray in China, as earlier this week Pony.ai, an emerging self-driving vehicle firm based in Guangdong (south), also obtained a license to operate 100 robotaxis in an area spread over 800 square kilometers.
AutoX, backed by Alibaba, is also running robotaxis in a 168 sq.-kms areas in the Pingshan district of Shenzhen, with its vehicles using fifth generation autonomous driving technology. EFE