Autonomous vehicles on the verge of becoming commonplace

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A passenger experiences a robotaxi of Apollo Go, the self-driving transportation service arm of Baidu, in Wuhan, Hubei Province. [Photo/China Daily]

Wider use allowed in cities as technology rapidly advances

Zhang Xinlei, a 28-year-old software engineer from Yizhuang, a suburb of Beijing, often summons a driverless robotaxi using ridesharing apps on his cellphone for trips like a night out with friends.

He said he just had to enter the pick-up and drop-off points and the number of passengers. A few minutes later, a self-driving taxi approaches, without the need for a human operator behind the wheel, but a security operator sits in the front passenger seat to provide safety in case of an emergency.

“The vehicle drives smoothly, without jerking or sudden braking. It can identify stop signs and traffic lights, automatically slow down and finally come to a stop,” Zhang said. “I never thought I would experience self-driving vehicles myself. It’s very convenient and safe.”

Large-scale commercialization of self-driving technology could become a reality sooner than expected. Tech companies in China have accelerated steps to conduct commercial operations of so-called robotaxi autonomous services as policies have become more favorable in some cities, industry experts said.

Tech giant Baidu recently announced that it had obtained the country’s first permits to offer fully driverless commercial robotaxi services to the public on open roads.

Apollo Go, the self-driving transportation service arm of Baidu, has been allowed to charge fares for robotaxi services – without a human driver or in-car security operator – in certain areas, the latest being Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, and Chongqing.

The new permits, which were granted by authorities in Wuhan and Yongchuan District, Chongqing, will allow Baidu to provide fee-based services for fully driverless robotaxis in designated areas of the two megacities, with five autonomous vehicles operating in every city.

Experts said China is taking the lead in research and development as well as the application of self-driving technologies, and is the first country to allow fully driverless chargeable robotaxi operations.

“This is a huge qualitative change,” said Wei Dong, vice president and director of safety operations of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, adding that permits are a key step on the way to the turning point. where the industry can finally unfold fully. large-scale autonomous driving services.

To receive the permits, Baidu’s robotaxis went through several stages of testing and licensing, starting with tests conducted with a safety operator in the driver’s seat through to a safety operator in the passenger seat, before finally receive permission to operate autonomous vehicles without human drivers. or operators in the vehicle, the company said.

Wei said Baidu is focusing on expanding its pilot commercial robotaxi services to first- and second-tier cities at an early stage, and will try to offer such services in urban scenic areas across the country.

Apollo Go has robotaxis operating in 10 cities – Beijing; Shanghai; Chongqing; Wuhan; Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong Province; Changsha, capital of Hunan Province; Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province; Yangquan in Shanxi province; and Wuzhen from Tongxiang City in Zhejiang Province. It has received more than one million orders, making Baidu the world’s largest autonomous mobility service provider. But it only charges or conducts business operations in Beijing, Chongqing, Wuhan and Yangquan.

Officials are pinning high hopes on the market as China recently released the first draft national guideline on the use of self-driving vehicles for public transport, a key step in accelerating the large-scale commercialization of self-driving technology. and encourage local authorities to formulate management policies, the experts added.

The country will promote the use of autonomous vehicles such as buses in a closed bus rapid transit system. Such systems are designed to have better capacity and reliability than conventional bus systems through features such as dedicated bus routes. It will also encourage self-driving vehicles to offer taxi services in simple and relatively controllable scenarios, according to draft rules released by the Department of Transport on August 8. Authorities are soliciting public opinion on the directive until September 7.

Local authorities have also rolled out a series of supporting policies to promote the commercialization of self-driving technology in recent years. For example, Shenzhen began allowing fully autonomous vehicles without human drivers to operate on certain roads from August 1, when a local regulation on smart, internet-connected vehicles came into effect.

The regulation also sets liability rules in car accidents involving autonomous vehicles with or without a driver.

In July, Beijing launched China’s first pilot zone for self-driving vehicle commercial services. Baidu and standalone startup Pony.ai are the first companies allowed to offer paid services.

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