China's robotaxis making advances on road to commercial operation
Feeling a little tired wandering in the vast Shougang Park, a steel mill-turned cultural and sports complex that served as a Beijing Winter Olympics venue? Try a futuristic park tour in a driverless taxi with autonomous driving technologies at the driver's seat.
The exciting robotaxi service, provided by Chinese artificial intelligence giant Baidu's autonomous driving mobility platform Apollo Go, has been running in the park for more than a year to offer visitors a taste of this high-tech mobility choice.
Thanks to continuous technology innovation and policy support, the commercial operation of robotaxis is venturing beyond semi-closed areas like Shougang Park and onto more open roads, as the promotion of robotaxis poses huge market potential in China.
Apollo Go's robotaxis will make bigger strides in city of Wuhan, and a district in Chongqing Municipality. These two places announced Monday that qualified operators are allowed to carry out commercial operation of completely driverless robotaxis, compared with trials of robotaxi services in some other cities that entail a safety operator sitting in the front passenger seat in case of emergency.
Starting this month, fully self-driving cars with no manual driving mode and corresponding devices can drive in designated areas and road sections in China's technology hub, Shenzhen.
"The wider commercial application of robotaxis mirrors improving autonomous driving technologies, and can help expand its public recognition and acceptance," said Ji Xuehong, director of the automobile industry innovation research center at North China University of Technology.
These cities' bold steps came after a series of top-level designs to promote the commercial operation of autonomous driving in China.
Speeding up high-level autonomous driving has been outlined in the country's intelligent automobile development strategy. Pilot projects for the application of high-precision maps for intelligent connected vehicles will be launched in some cities to serve autonomous driving.
Besides a nurturing hand, the government has paid close attention to autonomous driving safety. The country's transport ministry stressed that "safety should come first" in autonomous driving management in a draft document unveiled Monday.
The development of robotaxis is likely to be in a fast lane, with the market totaling about 3.2 trillion yuan (about 473.3 billion U.S. dollars) by 2040, according to CITIC Securities.
The huge market potential has lured many market players to take a slice, including technology firms, automobile manufacturers and ride-hailing service providers.
Baidu said the total mileage of its automatic driving tests exceeded 32 million kilometers, with Apollo Go's robotaxis serving over 1 million orders.
Earlier this month, online ride-hailing service provider, Caocao Mobility, announced that users can enjoy robotaxi services via its app in a pilot zone in the southeast of Beijing.
The robotaxi industry will reach an inflection point in production and operation costs around 2025, and the service's promotion and user experience will continue to exceed market expectations, according to investment bank CICC.
"As technology improves, the day of robotaxis' popularity overtaking online car-hailing services might come earlier than expected," Ji estimated.