One year since Google-backed Waymo started picking up passengers for its autonomous ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Chinese startup WeRide has bet big on driverless mobility with its own driverless taxi pilot in Guangzhou.

The backstory: WeRide is one of a handful of Chinese companies to rank highly in last year’s autonomous vehicle trial report released by the Department of Motor Vehicles of California, the world’s busiest testing ground for the industry.

  • With Level 4, highly autonomous vehicles at its disposal, WeRide aims to bring futuristic robotaxis to the mass market soon via a scalable business model.
  • Wang Jin, former senior vice-president at Baidu’s autonomous driving unit, formed WeRide in Silicon Valley in April 2017, when it was known as Jingchi.ai.
  • Wang stepped down as CEO and left the company in March 2018 amid a Baidu lawsuit over alleged theft of trade secrets. Baidu dropped the case, and the startup changed its name to WeRide later that year.
  • WeRide moved its global headquarters from Sunnyvale to Guangzhou in late 2017 and runs two research and development (R&D) centers in Beijing and San Jose, as well as a regional branch in Anqing, eastern Anhui province.
  • Renowned venture capitalist Kai-fu Lee has dubbed WeRide, the Waymo of China, the company’s Chief Operating Officer Zhang Li said earlier this year. The company began looking for fresh funding in September.

Unique selling point: Different from almost all rivals including Pony.ai, WeRide focuses on making driverless ride-hailing a viable business by meeting the challenges of commercialization, including fleet management, government approvals and marketing. In this way, the company has gained first-mover advantages over its peers.

  • The startup launched a robotaxi pilot of 20 Nissan cars in Guangzhou Science City area late last month, the first such project in a first-tier Chinese city.
  • The company handed out vouchers worth RMB 200 ($28) randomly to citizens within the area, to boost rider numbers.
  • COO Zhang Li told TechNode that the firm would put around 50 autonomous cars into service next year.

“We only applied for test licenses in Guangzhou because we want to create a solid, replicable, and sustainable business in our home city first. Our priority is to establish a robust and scalable robotaxi ecosystem here in Guangzhou—algorithms, hardware, and business models, and after that, we can expand into other cities.”

—WeRide COO Zhang Li, speaking to TechNode

The investors: WeRide has brought in a diverse pool of investors, including Alliance Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, Kai-fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, and AI unicorn Sensetime.

  • The company has not revealed its total financing amount or valuation. The last time it revealed funding numbers was its 2017 Pre-A Series when it pooled $57 million.

Present condition: WeRide is working with local partners to modify dozens of new taxi cabs into highly autonomous vehicles compliant with local rules. The firm will put them into service in some areas of Guangzhou next year.

  • To this end, WeRide formed a RMB 180 million ($25.5 million) joint venture with south China’s largest taxi operator, Baiyun Taxi Group, and state-owned Science City Guangzhou Investment Group.
  • The JV has hired dozens of full-time engineers and operational staff, along with around 150 part-time safety drivers, Zhang Li said. The unit has drawn up 2020 sales forecasts and established a remote control center for driverless operations.
  • The unit requires a safety driver to sit behind the wheel at present but aims for completely driverless vehicles to roll out as early as 2022.
  • One-third of WeRide’s more than 300 employees are in Silicon Valley. Its 100-vehicle fleet has racked up 1 million kilometers (621,371 miles) of testing in China and the US combined, with licenses granted by Guangzhou authorities and California DMV.

The landscape: Several Chinese tech giants and AV startups have drawn up timeframes to bring robotaxi services to market. Industry rival Pony.ai has accumulated more than 40,000 rides as of September in Guangzhou and Beijing, as part of an invite-only pilot scheme.

  • Baidu announced the launch of an early robotaxi program in Changsha, the provincial capital of central Hunan in September, though a spokeswoman declined to reveal details when contacted by TechNode.
  • Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing and AV startup AutoX plan to launch autonomous taxis in Shanghai as early as the end of 2019.

Prospects: WeRide aims to steal a march on competitors by being the first market entrant in the field. However, revenue outlook is unclear given the technical limitations and the unready regulatory environment.

  • While AV startups pursuing robotaxis enjoy strong support from Chinese authorities, regulators remain cautious about commercial rollouts. Rushing for normal operations would be “inappropriate” at this moment when self-driving still lacks safety, stability, and comfort, Guangzhou Transportation Bureau told TechNode.
  • WeRide has no plan to monetize the program at present, Zhang said, adding that it will validate technologies, deploy a viable fleet and create robust business cases.
  • The company intends to collaborate with taxi operators, ride-hailing platforms, and car-sharing services for a national rollout in the future.
  • Robotaxi is considered a potential disruptor for the mobility and auto markets. However, this can only happen when human drivers, the most costly element, are removed from the process, Zhang said.

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

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