Baidu has officially expanded its autonomous early rider program to citizens in the central Chinese city of Changsha as rivals accelerate their plans to carry passengers for dominance in the self-driving arena.

Why it matters: Baidu is doing more road tests in a bid to win more favor from Chinese local governments. Beijing has called for local governments to spend more on upgrading their transportation infrastructures.

  • Baidu has secured several contracts for building data centers for vehicle communication networks from local governments this year.
  • An official from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on Monday said “smart transportation” and “smart energy infrastructure” will be among the top priorities of the “new infrastructure” initiative to boost the economy.

Read more: China’s ‘new infrastructure’ projects, explained

Details: Citizens ranging from 18 to 65 can hail a self-driving Hongqi, a luxury sedan model from state-owned automaker FAW, with just “one-click” on Baidu’s navigation and search apps, according to our investigation.

  • Free of charge for passengers, the rides are currently restricted in a geo-fenced area with limited numbers of pick-up and drop-off locations. Residential blocks, shopping centers and office parks are covered in a downtown area of around 130 square kilometers.
  • China’s biggest search engine began piloting their robotaxi program with a fleet of 45 cars in late September in partnership with Changsha municipality.
  • A safety driver is required behind the wheel and testing during rush hours is not allowed.
  • The company has served around 700 riders with its fleet logging 150,000 kilometers (in Chinese) in the program.

Context: Baidu is not the first self-driving company allowing public to hail a robotaxi on Chinese public roads.

  • Nvidia-backed WeRide completed nearly 8,400 rides with its fleet of 20 Nissan self-driving cars in a 145 square kilometer area on the outskirt of the southern Guangzhou city in a month period since late November.
  • Pony.ai joined the force with Hyundai in the battle by taking 150 rides per day in Irvine, California since late last year. The Toyota-backed AV startup has been operating its robotaxi program to a limited pool of seed users in the southern Guangzhou city since December 2018.
  • Ride-hailing giant Didi is catching up, as well as Alibaba-backed AutoX, with plans to roll out their autonomous ride-hailing platforms separately in Shanghai next month, persons familiar with the matter told TechNode.

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