Consider all the possible benefits of robotaxis: increased mobility, lower costs, fewer vehicles on the roads, and more free time on daily commutes. Fleets of self-driving cabs are expected to have disruptive effects on transportation in cities around the world.

Despite all this promise, however, international trailblazers are currently scaling back their plans to deploy automated mobility services worldwide. GM’s Cruise is downsizing its plans to deploy robotaxis. Alphabet’s Waymo launched self-driving taxi services late last year, but vehicles are still only available to about 400 test families in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. These cars are also required to have safety drivers behind the wheel in case a human is required to take over in a dangerous situation.

Meanwhile, Chinese self-driving companies are pushing to lead the global race to deploy self-driving taxis. AutoX is expanding its presence, with plans to offer self-driving rides in Europe by the end of 2020. Baidu has set an ambitious goal to roll out 100 self-driving taxis in Changsha by year-end. Pony.ai and WeRide have been testing driverless ride-hailing in Guangzhou for months.

Despite the international setbacks, robotaxis are seen as a possible answer to the regulatory, financial, and scale problems facing AVs. Many believe they could pave the way to widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

Changsha and Guangzhou are the two major Chinese cities aiming to rise above the rest in the country’s AV race.

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Changsha, China’s Phoenix

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of Changsha. The capital of Hunan province, located in central China, has not been called the famed “metropolis of the future,” as Shenzhen has. Nor is it an important political hub akin to Beijing or a commercial center like Shanghai. However, the future of automated driving could be playing out in this city.

Changsha wasn’t the first city to allow AV tests in China. In fact, it didn’t open its first pilot zone for AVs until June 2018, two years later than Shanghai, and also lagging behind Beijing and six other cities in China.

But Changsha strode into the spotlight in late 2018, when the municipal government announced its plan to become the first Chinese city to roll out robotaxis in 2019, and unveiled a partnership with Baidu, the online search and artificial intelligence giant that has been named one of China’s “AI champions.” Baidu declared that Changsha would be second only to Beijing in its goals to put autonomous vehicles on the road.

For a long time, AV companies were only allowed to test self-driving cars in Changsha’s closed pilot zone, located west of the Xiangjiang River, which divides the city in two. The testing zone originally incorporated just 12 kilometers of road networks. But the city has dramatically accelerated its efforts to deploy self-driving cars.

In June of this year, the city government issued nearly 50 permits for road testing, the vast majority of which were granted to Baidu. Officials are also revamping around 200 kilometers of public roads, aiming to add connectivity features for self driving cars. The roads are expected to be put into use in September.

The overhaul will allow safety drivers to oversee autonomous vehicles on 36 urban streets, including highways in several areas around the city. Qiu Jixing, the deputy mayor, claimed at a June press event that Changsha would be home to the largest open-road networks for autonomous tests in the country.

The city now hopes to take the lead in AV deployment, with plans to run 100 of Baidu’s robotaxis on its motorways. Chinese media reported last month that recruitment of volunteers for Baidu’s early rider program will begin in September.

In June, Changsha authorities took deliberate steps towards deployment by stipulating explicit rules for transporting passengers in robotaxis. The regulations state that only AV companies whose vehicles have traveled more than 20,000 kilometers in the city without traffic violations are eligible. First-time applicants must run a maximum of 30 cars for at least half a year before applying to put more vehicles on the road.

Changsha is often referred to as “China’s Phoenix,” drawing comparisons to the Arizona metropolis—neither city was the most prosperous in their respective countries nor were they pioneers when the competition for next-generation smart vehicles started up.

Like Phoenix, now a global hub for the evolution of the driverless vehicle industry, Changsha is expected to play a pivotal role in AV development and deployment, especially given its relatively docile traffic environment, government support, and drive to become China’s AV trailblazer.

Guangzhou, home to China’s AV pioneers

Guangzhou was also late to allow AV testing on its streets. The capital of Guangdong province was the last of China’s four first-tier cities—which also include Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai—to issue testing licenses. But that hasn’t dampened the southern city’s ambitions to lead the nationwide AV race.

Guangzhou has gone even further than Changsha. For months, the city has allowed self-driving companies Pony.ai and WeRide to test autonomous ride-hailing platforms. The two startups are also testing their vehicles in the US. Last year, the company ranked fifth out of all autonomous driving companies testing vehicles in California when measuring disengagements, the number of times a human driver is required to take over from the vehicles autonomous system.

Pony.ai reported just one disengagement for every 1,645 kilometers traveled, according to the state’s motor vehicle department.

In December, Pony.ai began testing its autonomous ride-hailing service Pony Pilot in Guangzhou’s urban Nansha District. The test area now covers 60 square kilometers. Pony.ai claims that trips can be made between any two points within the test area, rather than just trips based on fixed routes. The company said the longest possible journey lasts two hours.
Xie Xiaohui, chief of the Commerce Bureau of Nansha District, told state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV): “Pony.ai can test their vehicles on all the roads with 24-hour access in Nansha.” Thus far, only employees and a limited pool of volunteers have access to the service via an invite-only app. Pony.ai has said it will expand its ride-hailing fleet to 100 vehicles by the end of 2019.

Despite its current limitations, the company has set ambitious goals, hoping to catch up with Waymo. “It would be a great mission for us to challenge the best technology in the world in the next several years,” said Zhang Ning, head of Pony.ai’s Guangzhou research and development center, during a recent interview with CCTV.

For rival WeRide, second only to Baidu in the number of road testing licenses it has secured in China, robotaxis are of the utmost importance. “In Guangzhou, we can apply to offer transport services to the public after driving safely for 10,000 kilometers. This means more to us than California’s robotaxi permit,” the company told TechNode. The company received 20 of the 24 test permits issued by Guangzhou’s government in June.

WeRide is indeed also testing its vehicles in California, reporting 280 kilometers per disengagement, though it hasn’t received a robotaxi license in the US, unlike rivals Pony.ai and AutoX.

Nonetheless, the company has been testing its robotaxi service for eight months on a small suburban island in Guangzhou. They plan to launch the service with taxi operator Baiyun in 2020.

Guangzhou allows companies to test vehicles on 33 public roads totaling 46 kilometers in length, although more than half of the roads have little traffic volume. It is also unclear how many residents the companies could target in these areas and when they will be able to charge for their services.

Still, Guangzhou has grand ambitions of being the global center of the automotive industry in the era of shared mobility. The city aims to take the top spot in terms of auto production in China, planning to produce 5 million vehicles by 2025. Of these, the city hopes 80% will be equipped with semi-automated driving systems, much higher than the 30% target set by the central government.

Formerly known as home to Japanese automakers in China and already the country’s second-largest city in car production volume, Guangzhou is now pushing to pave the road in the smart mobility revolution. 

Credit: Jill, Chris

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.