By JOE McDONALD, AP Business Writer
BEIJING (AP) — With no one behind the wheel, a self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. rolls down a Beijing street when its sensors spot the corner of a delivery cart pulling into its lane.
The taxi stops half a car-length away. “So sorry,” a recorded voice said to the passengers. The steering wheel spins on its own as the taxi circles the cart. A Baidu technician watches from the front passenger seat.
Baidu is China’s most prominent competitor in a multibillion-dollar race with rival autonomous vehicle developers, including Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors Co.’s Cruise, to turn their futuristic tech into a product. of consumption.
Baidu and a rival, Pony.ai, received the first Chinese licenses in April to operate taxis without a driver but with a safety supervisor on board. This came 18 months after Waymo launched a driverless ride service in Phoenix, Arizona in October 2020.
Founded in 2000 as a search engine operator, Baidu has expanded into artificial intelligence, processor chips and other technologies. He says his self-driving vehicles could, if successful, make driving cheaper, easier and safer.
“We believe the main purpose of autonomous driving is to reduce human-caused traffic accidents,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s intelligent driving group.
Self-driving is one of an array of emerging technologies from artificial intelligence to renewable energy that Chinese companies are investing billions of dollars to try to create, encouraged by the ruling Communist Party.
Beijing wants to join the United States, Europe and Japan as technological powerhouses to build its prosperity and global influence. This raises the possibility of new inventions but also fuels tensions with Washington and its allies, who see China as a strategic challenger.
Baidu’s Apollo self-driving platform was launched in 2017, and Apollo Go self-driving taxi service three years later.
The taxi service with driver behind the wheel to take over in case of emergency started in 2020 and expanded to Beijing, Shanghai and eight other cities. Apollo Go claims to have completed 213,000 rides in the last quarter of last year, making it the busiest self-driving taxi service in the world.
For rides without a driver and no supervisor in the passenger seat, Apollo Go started in a 60 square kilometer (23 square kilometer) area of Yizhuang, an industrial district on the southeastern outskirts of Beijing with wide streets and few cyclists or pedestrians.
“It’s very convenient,” said Zhao Hui, 43, who uses Baidu taxis in Yizhuang.
“It might seem a bit safer” than a human driver, Zhao said. “Sometimes there are small objects, maybe some that people don’t notice. They can spot them and stop.
Other developers include Deeproute.ai and AutoX in Shenzhen. Pony.ai, founded in 2016 and backed by venture capital, tests self-driving cars and tractor-trailers on the road.
Industry plans are “very aggressive to deliver the robo-taxi to the consumer,” said Owen Chen of S&P Global Mobility.
Automaker Geely, owner of Volvo Car, Geely, Lotus and Polestar, has announced plans for satellite-linked autonomous vehicles. Network equipment manufacturer Huawei Technologies Ltd. is working on autonomous mining and industrial vehicles.
The ruling party promotes automation to support economic growth by making its aging and shrinking workforce more productive. China’s working-age population has fallen 5% since its peak in 2011 and is expected to continue falling.
“People are very expensive,” Wei said. “Once that utility no longer needs staff, the cost can come down quickly.”
As to whether China can lead the global industry, “it’s a race right now,” said Pete Kelly, managing director of the automotive division of GlobalData Plc.
“But they could easily do that, because of the way decisions are made and deployments are done in China,” Kelly said.
McKinsey & Co. in 2019 estimated China’s potential market for taxis, buses, trucks and other autonomous equipment and software at trillions of dollars.
Early products are unlikely to recoup their development costs, but they could be “loss leaders” to sell other services, Kelly said.
Baidu says it already sells navigation and other technologies to automakers. It expects total sales of 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) based on deals reached so far, Chairman Robin Li said in a May 26 conference call with reporters.
The company says it spent a total of 5.6 billion yuan ($885 million) on research and development last year, but does not disclose how much of that was spent on self-driving vehicles. Baidu posted a profit of 10.2 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) last year on revenue of 124.5 billion yuan ($19.5 billion).
Baidu and its more advanced rivals have reached industry level 4 in technology. Their systems can work without a driver but must be pre-loaded with a detailed map. This limits the area where they can operate. //brief background on the levels here? not something familiar to average readers…//
Next, operators must gather information about pedestrians and local conditions based on daily driving, a time-consuming process that will slow the technology’s rollout.
For a maneuver such as a U-turn, the Apollo system tracks up to 200 vehicles, pedestrians and other potential obstacles up to 100 meters (110 feet) away, according to Baidu.
Wei said Baidu would be happy for overseas partners to adapt its technology to their markets, but has no export plans yet as it focuses on Chinese cities.
Intersections are always a challenge, Wei said. Pedestrians in China are used to drivers gradually pushing their way through crowds in a crosswalk while turning on a green light, but a robot car can’t do that.
“Our car will always yield to people and may end up not going through the light,” Wei said.
Baidu has launched its own self-driving car brand, JIDU, which unveiled a concept car this month and says it’s aiming for a list price of 480,000 yuan ($72,000).
The company has also struck deals with three Chinese electric vehicle brands to produce cars with computers, radars and light-based sensors built into them instead of bolted to the roof.
To encourage others to use Apollo, Baidu has made the platform open source and says it has signed up 210 industry partners and 80,000 developers who could build products based on it.
Apollo Go announces plans to expand self-driving taxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 by 2030.
Compared to a human driver, “the difference is not big,” said Zhang Zhihua, 29, an interior designer who uses driverless Baidu taxis in Yizhuang. “If you’re not looking ahead and playing on your mobile phone, then it’s exactly the same.
AP video producers Caroline Chen and Wayne Zhang contributed.
Apollo (in Chinese): https://www.apollo.auto/robotaxi
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