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DiDi Launches Robotaxis

Didi Chuxing (DiDi), a new mobility company focused on providing people with “app-based transportation and life services,” has just launched a robotaxi service.

Didi Chuxing (DiDi), a new mobility company focused on providing people with “app-based transportation and life services,” has just launched a robotaxi service.

DiDi is based in China but also has operations in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Japan, and Mexico. Its +550 million users take more than 10 billion passenger trips a year. Aside from its new robotaxi service, which is only operating in China at the moment, the company also has normal taxi, carsharing, bikesharing and e-bikesharing, food delivery and payment, and other new mobility solutions. … But you’re here for the robotaxi news — I know!

DiDi Robotaxi Service in Shanghai

Image courtesy DiDi

The new robotaxi service just launched in Shanghai (specifically, around Shanghai’s Automobile Exhibition Center, the local business districts, and subway stations and hotels in downtown Shanghai). Presuming things go well there, I expect it to roll out to other Chinese cities quickly.

At the moment, the service is free.

The service is not completely unmanned. Safety drivers sit in the vehicles and, presumably, do nothing. As another safety measure: “Key V2X hardware is deployed at main junctions within the test area to facilitate coordination among fleets and minimize safety blind spots.”

It’s not fully clear how DiDi is solving for the challenges beyond extremely detailed mapping and geofenced service areas, but the company is apparently trying to broaden the abilities of its fleet in order to get closer to what a human is capable of.

“We will start with a mixed dispatch model that breaks out current geo-fence limitations,” said Bob Zhang Bo, CTO of DiDi and CEO of the autonomous driving unit. “Autonomous driving needs to move beyond being a novel but limited experience to become a reliable and efficient daily mobility option for the general public in highly complex real-world environment.”

Sprinting Forward in Global Race

What does DiDi have that Waymo doesn’t? Technologically speaking, that’s not entirely clear — or not clear at all. On thing it does have, though, is a ginormous potential customer base as it is increasingly ready to roll out robotaxis trials and full services.

The scale of DiDi’s worldwide services is such that it claims it is “the world’s leading on-demand transportation and services platform.” With more than 10 billion trips a year, that seems believable. If it executes a safe, successful robotaxi pilot program in China, it seems like the company would have a leg up for rolling robotaxi operations out in more cities around the world. In fact, it’s hard to think of any company that could have such a good position in the market at this point.

Image courtesy DiDi

Furthermore, as I reported a few weeks ago, “Didi Chuxing (DiDi) recently raised $500 million for an autonomous driving subsidiary. DiDi has been working on this tech since 2016, and then spun off an independent company for it in August 2019.” The investment round was led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. As well as having self-driving vehicle testing licenses in Shanghai, Beijing, and Suzhou, China, DiDi has a self-driving vehicle testing license in California. This subsidiary has more than 400 employees worldwide.

DiDi may not be a household name in the United States or Europe at the moment, but could it be in 3–5 years?

Funny Note

One interesting note on the potential for robotaxis to revolutionize transportation and cities in the next couple of years is that DiDi seems to think it will take much longer, despite its clear position near the head of the pack. At least, that’s how I read this comment from Cheng Wei, Founder and CEO of DiDi:

“AI in transportation will no doubt revolutionize safety and efficiency of the urban transit system. DiDi’s biggest strengths are in our rich use cases, data capabilities and a strongest long-term commitment to what we believe to be a clear direction of the future. It will be a long way and takes at least a decade of continued investment, before AV technology passes critical technology, business and regulatory milestones; but we are determined to tackle the challenges ahead.”

At least a decade?

What he means by “critical … milestones” is unclear, but one would presume that means until we have true robotaxis without safety drivers running wild (or in a very orderly manner) around our cities. Hmm … I find that to be a surprising comment from the CEO of DiDi.

Furthermore, he’s still sold fundamentally on services with human drivers. “We believe warm human driving service will be indispensable to the future mobility network, and new kinds of work and careers will emerge as the autonomous industry chain expands.”

Am I reading that incorrectly? Or is that a totally surprising comment to add to a press release about a new robotaxi service?

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