While autonomous vehicle testing in the United States (especially with Tesla vehicles) gets a lot of our attention, we also like to keep an eye on developments in other places, like China. In what is being called a “world first,” Baidu, the “Google of China,” has been granted permits to offer commercial fully driverless ride-hailing services in two Chinese cities.
“This is a tremendous qualitative change,” said Wei Dong, Vice President and Chief Safety Operation Officer of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group. “Fully driverless cars providing rides on open roads to paying customers means we have finally come to the moment that the industry has been longing for. We believe these permits are a key milestone on the path to the inflection point when the industry can finally roll out fully autonomous driving services at scale.”
In two of China’s largest megacities, Chongqing and Wuhan, Baidu’s autonomous ride-hailing service Apollo Go is now permitted to take fares for robotaxi rides — entirely without human drivers in the vehicle — thanks to the permits. The authorities reflect significant trust in the strength of Baidu’s self-driving technology among regulatory authorities as AVs continue to expand throughout China. In addition, the announcement of a partnership with Didi Chuxing is a significant milestone for China’s transportation future, paving the way for widespread driverless ride-hailing in the country.
Baidu’s robotaxis have had to complete numerous phases of testing and licensing, starting with a safety operator in the driving seat, all the way through testing with a safety operator in the passenger seat and finally receiving permission to operate without a human driver or operator inside.
Baidu obtained the permits from local governments in Wuhan and Chongqing’s Yongchuan District. Both cities have been leading edge in recent years, with both developing infrastructure and updating new rules for AVs.
Baidu has been given the necessary permits and will begin providing fully driverless robotaxi services in Wuhan’s designated areas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Chongqing from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with five Apollo 5th generation robots driving in each city. In the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone, the service area is 13 square kilometers, while in Yongchuan District of Chongqing, it’s 30 square kilometers.
Baidu’s autonomous vehicles are the first in China to be granted a variety of permits from two megacities, including Google’s Waymo and Uber. The autonomous driving system, monitoring redundancy, remote driving capability, and a strong safety operation system, all of which are backed by a huge data repository containing real-world data collected by Baidu’s AVs over 32 million kilometers (about 20 million miles), give them multilayer mechanisms to ensure ultimate safety.
Baidu said that by the end of March 2022, it had obtained the top position in China for accumulative number of autonomous driving patent applications, with 4,000. Among them, there are more than 1,500 worldwide high-level autonomous driving global patent families. Apollo Go has already expanded to all first-tier cities in China and is now the world’s largest robotaxi service provider, having recently reached one million orders.
Here’s a video of the service in action:
More About Baidu’s Future Robotaxis
Baidu’s major edge in the autonomous vehicle industry has been software and computer hardware, but the firm didn’t want to get involved with automobile manufacturing, which is why Tesla struggled as a new entrant into an already crowded and established market.
So Baidu teamed up with Geely (pronounced GEE-lee with a g as in giraffe, not g as in gut). The resulting collaboration is now known as JIDU (JI-du), which combines the “Gee” from Geely with the “DU” from Baidu. But, they used a different character for the “Ji” part, to make the new name mean “concentration.”
The LIDU was designed from the bottom up to be a completely autonomous vehicle. It has a steering wheel, but it folds away beneath the dash when it drives itself to make more interior room. It has extra LED lights, set in matrix patterns, to better communicate with other road users. It also includes voice recognition software that allows it to not only give commands to the car, but also inform people inside and around the vehicle of anything they should know. At the conclusion of the video, when the car says “I am Robo One,” (in Mandarin) it’s a reminder that this is just one way to make an unmanned vehicle work.
The vehicle was also designed to be a practical automobile when you want to drive it yourself, according to the company. While most autonomous vehicle projects, like Argo.ai or Waymo, include large, funny-looking sensors sticking out all over the place. Such sensors can fold away and be hidden behind closed doors in the Robo-01, much as a gas cap would.
So it’s a vehicle you’d be less self-conscious about driving manually to a social gathering. But this is also a safety precaution because folding sensors before an accident involving a pedestrian (at least those that can’t be avoided) can help protect people from harm.
“The Intelligent Car 3.0 Era is the era of robocars,” said Xia Yiping, CEO of JIDU. “The transition to this new era is marked by the shift of driving power from humans to AI, with robocars ultimately achieving self-generating progress led by AI. The automotive industry in the 3.0 era will see a seismic shift from a revolution in energy to a revolution in product attributes. The ultimate goal is to realize a fully driverless transportation experience. The JIDU robocar aims to meet users’ needs for intelligent travel, in-car intelligent assistance and intelligent cabin in the new era.”
According to my contact at Baidu, we’ll be able to meet Robo One in the United States eventually, but it’s unclear whether he or someone like him will come to US roads. They have already begun some testing operations in California after receiving regulatory clearance from the state earlier this year. Look for an SUV with the word “apollo” on its side in Sunnyvale that belongs to one of Robo One’s relatives.
Either way, we’re likely to see Baidu be one of the dominant players in global autonomous vehicles in coming years.
Featured image provided by Baidu.
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