Ride-hailing giant Didi will launch a pilot robotaxi fleet in Shanghai, allowing passengers to book rides in autonomous vehicles through its app, the company said on Friday.

Why it matters: Didi is the latest tech firm to announce plans to test a fleet of autonomous taxis in China, following similar initiatives by search giant Baidu and self-driving startup Pony.ai.

  • Didi this month spun off its self-driving unit. The move is seen as an effort to refine its business structure before a rumored initial public offering.
  • Didi CEO Cheng Wei said is an internal meeting in February that the company’s primary focus is ride-hailing, and that non-core businesses would be merged or cut altogether.

“We believe that giving ordinary citizens access to large scale, shared autonomous fleets is key to achieving our shared goal of safety, efficiency, and sustainability for future cities.”

—Didi CEO Cheng Wei in a statement on Friday

Details: The pilot program will feature 30 different models of Level 4 autonomous vehicles—cars that are fully driverless in most scenarios, the company said.

  • The vehicles will be available in Shanghai’s northwestern Jiading District, the city’s automotive center.
  • The company said the vehicles would be deployed in a mixed dispatching model, in which autonomous vehicles and human-driven cars will pick up passengers depending on road conditions.
  • Didi was awarded pilot licenses by the Shanghai government on Wednesday, but did not disclose when the robotaxi pilot would kick off.
  • The company says it has the potential to become the first company to scale robotaxi deployment in China.

Context: With around 550 million users, Didi is the largest ride-hailing company in China.

  • The company has seen its share of issues. Two female Didi passengers were murdered by their drivers on separate occasions last year. Robotaxis could reduce this risk.

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

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