China approves first driverless robotaxis for commuters

Chinese driverless robotaxis

On March 3, AutoX, an Alibaba-backed startup, announced it would provide fully driverless robotaxis on public roads in Shenzhen, China, becoming the first player in the industry and notching an important industry milestone.

Companies operating autonomous shuttles on public roads in China were restricted by controls requiring them to have safety drivers inside the taxis.

However, in Shenzhen, AutoX will no longer have a backup driver or any remote operators for its local fleet of 25 taxis, it said, adding that although the government is not restricting where it operates withinin the city, the company will focus on the downtown area.

In an interview, AutoX CEO Jianxiong Xiao said, “It is a dream. After working so hard for so many years, we have finally reached the point that the technology is mature enough, that we feel confident by ourselves, to really remove the safety driver,” as quoted by CNN.

Xiao added that the company won over regulators after working to improve both its software and hardware. “We have over 100 vehicles driving every day on the road in China to capture data,” he said.

“From a technical point of view, the car is ready. It is very crucial to have this car, otherwise we cannot go driverless,” he added.

A former assistant lecturer at Princeton who still likes to be called “Professor X,” Xiao founded AutoX in 2016.

His Shenzhen-based firm focuses on making the technology that goes into self-driving cars, and partnered with major automakers, including Fiat Chrysler, to develop its robotaxis.

While AutoX seems to have the edge in China, it is not the first time fully driverless shuttles have been used on public roads. The company previously obtained approval to carry out completely autonomous tests on public roads in parts of San Jose, California.

In October, Alphabet’s Waymo said it would make its unmanned transportation service available to the public in Phoenix, Arizona.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for contactless services, which encouraged the government to move forward with the autonomous technology, Xiao said.

Didi, China’s largest ride-hailing firm, began offering free rides in its autonomous vehicles within a designated area of Shanghai in June. Chinese tech giant Baidu also recently announced that its robotaxi service was available to the public in certain districts of Beijing.

According to Xiao, “The traffic scenarios are much more challenging. For our AI, we had to do a lot of work to adapt to the local Chinese way of driving.”