Baidu launches robotaxi business, after Beijing city tariffs approved

BEIJING – Baidu may start collecting robot taxi fares in part of Beijing from Thursday, the Chinese tech giant told CNBC this week, marking a major step towards expanding its driverless taxi business. .

Regulatory approval to support robotaxis in China comes as local governments across the United States move in the same direction.

However, the Beijing city movement carries additional weight.

The approval of the Chinese capital marks the first time that such a large city in the country has allowed companies to charge the public for robotaxi rides.

This paves the way for other cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to do the same, Wei Dong, vice president and chief security officer of Baidu’s intelligent driving group, told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

He expects those cities to act later this year or early next year.

How much will it cost?

As of Thursday, Baidu’s Apollo unit that runs the robotaxi business can collect fares from passengers taking one of 67 self-driving cars in Beijing’s suburban Yizhuang neighborhood.

Although the company did not disclose the exact prices, it said the fares would be comparable to the higher tier travel costs available through apps like Didi, which can cost twice as much as regular trips.

A security staff member boards an autonomous robotaxi on October 13, 2020, in Beijing, China, days after Baidu launched test operations for its Apollo Robotaxi.

Zhao Jing | China Visual Group | Getty Images

Baidu has been offering free robotaxi rides to Yizhuang since October 2020. On Wednesday, the robotaxi app, titled “Luobo Kuaipao”, showed an example fare of 34 yuan ($ 5.31) for a 3 kilometer (1.86 miles) from a Sam’s Club. in Yizhuang to a nearby subway station.

The same route costs around 14 yuan ($ 2.19) via Didi’s basic express car service. Didi’s premium fare sample for the same route is 27 yuan.

So far, the novelty of a free and autonomous taxi has attracted a number of regular users to Yizhuang. Wei said more than 20,000 users each make at least 10 trips per month. It’s unclear how many will continue to use the service when they have to pay, but Wei aims to have an additional 100 robotaxi cars checked every year.

Robotaxis race for US and China approval

From the United States to China, axis robots are gaining traction with regulators holding the keys to allowing the public to make driverless journeys.

Self-driving taxi operators like Alphabet’s Waymo have tested similar products in the United States, primarily in California and Arizona. Waymo can charge the public for fares in any part of Phoenix, and its driverless vehicles don’t need a safety driver.

On November 16, AutoX, the autonomous driving company backed by Alibaba, claimed that its fully driverless robotaxis now operates in the largest region of China – 168 square kilometers (65 square miles) in the Pingshan District of the southern city. from Shenzhen. AutoX said it started in January to allow the public to register for robotaxi rides. It was not immediately clear if there was a cost to go up.

Baidu’s license for autonomous commercial vehicle operations covers an area of ​​60 square kilometers, including a town called Yizhuang which is home to many companies such as the headquarters. The area is about a half-hour drive south of central Beijing.

The Beijing city government has also made Yizhuang a test site for autonomous driving by allowing companies to test their projects there. These include JD’s unmanned delivery vehicles and Baidu’s robotaxi cars.

Baidu’s expansion plans

Baidu CEO Robin Li said last week the company plans to expand its Apollo Go robotaxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030. This is an increase from to the five cities currently.

The company also announced that its next generation of robotaxi vehicles will cost half the price to manufacture compared to the previous generation. The models are co-branded with three electric car manufacturers: Chinese start-up WM Motor, Aion – a spin-off of state-owned GAC – and state-owned Arcfox of the BAIC group.

In June, Baidu and BAIC claimed they could manufacture 1,000 driverless cars for 480,000 yuan ($ 75,000) each, compared to an average of 1 million yuan for a self-driving car.

Wei joined Baidu’s Smart Driving Group in May after seven years at Shouqi Limousine & Chauffeur, where he was CEO. The company operates a high-end version of Didi.

He said Baidu’s strategy to start a robotaxi business is to reduce the cost of autonomous driving technology and target specific user scenarios.

Rather than making full use of lidar technology – which requires expensive sensors to create detailed maps before the robotaxi can operate – Wei has generally talked about using algorithms to increase the efficient use of hardware.

Learn more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

On the consumer side, Wei said Apollo will focus on ways to provide the user with an experience beyond just a mode of transportation, such as viewing Beijing streets from 20 years ago. years on the windows of cars, instead of the current view of the street.

Another strategy is to find ways to use the robotaxi for functions other than travel, such as a medical treatment space or a public library, he said.

Although Apollo is only a small part of Baidu, its development matches the CEO’s attempts to convince investors that the future of the larger company lies in artificial intelligence and related fields such as autonomous driving.

The company’s fastest growing area of ​​third-quarter revenue growth was “non-online marketing revenue”, up 76% from a year ago to $ 5.2 billion yuan ($ 806 million). Baidu attributed the growth to demand for cloud computing and its other AI activities.

– CNBC Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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