BEIJING China Search Engine giant Baidu Inc said on Monday it has been granted permissions to operate fully driverless robotaxi services on open roads from two Chinese cities, the first of their kind in the country.
The permits, granted by the southwestern municipality of Chongqing and the central city of Wuhan, allow commercial robotaxis to offer rides to the public without human safety drivers in the vehicle. Baidu said that they marked a turning point in China's policy-making towards autonomous driving.
These permits have deep significance for the industry, Wei Dong, chief safety operation officer at Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group, told Reuters in an interview. If we think of the exploration of space, this moment is equivalent to landing on the moon. The company said at first that the five fee-charging robotaxis will be deployed in each city, where they can operate in designated areas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Wuhan and 9: 30 a.m. to 4: 30 p.m. in Chongqing.
The service areas comprise 30 square km 11.58 square miles in Chongqing's Yongchuan District and 13 square miles in the Wuhan Economic Technological Development Zone.
In April, Baidu's Apollo and Toyota Motor Corp-backed Pony.ai said they received permits in Beijing to deploy robotaxis without safety drivers in the driver's seat on open roads within a 60 sq km area. The permits from Beijing still require them to have a safety driver in the passenger seat. These services have started.
Baidu is in talks with local governments in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen to get licenses within a year to test fully-driverless and unpaid robotaxis in those cities, according to Wei.
China's efforts to speed-track autonomous vehicle trials and permits come as U.S. regulators are pushing ahead with milestone-setting driving policies.
In January, Cruise got a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission that allows it to offer paid and fully driverless rides from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in select streets in San Francisco.
Since its launch in 2020, Apollo Go, Baidu's robotaxi service, has operated over 1 million rides across 10 Chinese cities.
Baidu has not reported any problems with the service and has not given a breakdown of how much it has invested in the project.