Baidu begins robotaxi pilot service in Changsha

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Baidu begins pilot robotaxi services with a fleet of 45 autonomous cars in the central Chinese city of Changsha on Thursday, September 26, 2019. (Image credit: Baidu)
Baidu begins pilot robotaxi services with a fleet of 45 autonomous cars in Changsha on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (Image credit: Baidu)

Baidu has launched a robotaxi pilot service in the capital city of central Hunan province a year after its much-publicized alliance with Changsha municipality. The company is offering local residents free rides in an effort to gain an edge in the increasingly crowded autonomous driving industry.

Why it matters: The move may mark the start of a turnaround for Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, which has stumbled in its efforts to commercialize its self-driving business.

  • The company’s semi-autonomous (Level 3) driving business unit has reportedly (in Chinese) shifted its focus from advanced driver-assistance systems for highway driving to valet parking, as commercial progress is taking longer than expected. Baidu later denied that this was the case but has not revealed further advancements.
  • The company also previously announced plans to mass-produce L3 autonomous cars with Chinese automakers BAIC and JAC Motor by the end of this year, an achievement that is yet to be delivered.

Detail: Baidu is seeking local volunteers for free rides on certain urban roads west of the city to use in its fleet of 45 licensed L4 driverless electric vehicles produced in partnership with state-backed automaker FAW, which kicked off service on Thursday.

  • The company did not reveal the length and specific locations of road segments currently available for tests, but expects the longest trip to be around 50 kilometers (around 31 miles) by year-end. In the first half of next year, this should extend to 135 kilometers, the company said.
  • Volunteer riders are asked to leave names, phone numbers, and email addresses, according to an application on the website for Apollo, its autonomous driving project.
  • Changsha has adopted a relatively loose policy for passenger transport tests in driverless cars compared with Shanghai: applicants only need to be responsible adults over 18 years of age to qualify, according to a regulation released by the Changsha municipal government in July.

Context: Chinese self-driving companies are quickly expanding fleets with new driverless cars in search of data, a critical component to commercialize the industry. Competition is intensifying as new money pours in.

  • Deeproute.ai, a relative newcomer which reportedly was founded by the team from shuttered AV company Roadstar.ai, this week revealed a $50 million round of fresh funding from top Chinese investors including Fosun RZ Capital, GSR Ventures, and Yunqi Partners.
  • Despite an overall economic slowdown, autonomous driving companies are still favored by Chinese investors, with a total financing more than tripling to RMB 16.2 billion ($2.27 billion) in 2018 from the previous year, according to figures from Chinese market research firm EO Intelligence.