Baidu said this week that it would begin collecting robotaxi fees in a portion of Beijing on Thursday, marking a significant step toward expanding its autonomous taxi company.
The regulatory clearance to encourage robotaxis in China comes at a time when municipal governments in the United States are moving in the same way.
The city of Beijing’s move, on the other hand, bears significant weight.
With approval from China’s capital, firms will be able to charge the public for robotaxi trips for the first time in the country.
It lays the groundwork for other cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen to follow suit, according to Wei Dong, vice president, and chief security operation officer at Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, in an exclusive interview with CNBC.
He anticipates that those communities will take action later this year or early next year.
Baidu’s Apollo unit, which runs the robotaxi company, may already collect fares from passengers riding in one of 67 self-driving cars in Beijing’s suburban neighborhood of Yizhuang as of Thursday.
While the business did not provide specific pricing, it did state that rates will be equal to premium level ride-hailing costs offered through apps such as Didi, which may cost twice as much as regular trips.
Since October 2020, Baidu has provided free robotaxi trips in Yizhuang. As of Wednesday, the “Luobo Kuaipao” robotaxi app displayed an example charge of 34 yuan ($5.31) for a 3-kilometer (1.86-mile) journey from a Sam’s Club in Yizhuang to a nearby subway station.
Didi’s basic express vehicle service charges roughly 14 yuan ($2.19) for the same distance. The sample premium level charge for the same journey on Didi is 27 yuan.
The novelty of a free, self-driving cab has attracted a handful of frequent consumers in Yizhuang so far. According to Wei, more than 20,000 people take at least 10 rides every month. It’s unknown how many people will continue to use the service once they have to pay for it, but Wei hopes to verify 100 more robotaxi cars per year.
Robotaxis is gaining traction with authorities who hold the keys to allowing the public to take autonomous trips from the United States to China.
Alphabet’s Waymo and other self-driving cab companies have been testing comparable products in the United States, especially in California and Arizona. Waymo may charge fees to the public in a portion of Phoenix, and its autonomous vehicles do not require a safety driver.
Supported by General Motors, Cruise said earlier this month that it has submitted to the California government for final certification to become the first robotaxi operator in San Francisco to sell completely autonomous services. It is unclear when Cruise will be granted permission.
So far, Baidu can only provide public robotaxi trips when accompanied by a human staff member.
In Beijing, the business has begun testing completely autonomous driverless vehicles.
Wei anticipates that, within the next year or two, regulatory momentum will likely permit testing of completely autonomous vehicles — those without safety drivers — on public roads.
According to a Credit Suisse analysis published last month, the expense of a human driver accounts for around 60% of the customer payment in ride-sharing.
(Adapted from CNBC.com)