Chinese self-driving startup Pony.ai will begin testing self-driving cars in Shanghai as part of a government push for global leadership in the development of autonomous vehicle technology.
Pony.ai will work with city regulators to deploy a self-driving fleet for test drives on public roads in northwestern Jiading district, the company announced Saturday along with the Shanghai municipal government during the annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC).
The company did not disclose the number of cars in the fleet or project timeline.
The AV upstart, with headquarters in Silicon Valley and the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, was valued upwards of $3 billion after securing earlier this year $462 million in a Series B led by Japanese auto giant Toyota. The Pony.ai fleet of more than 100 vehicles has traveled a total of more than 2.5 million kilometers (around 1.6 million miles) in China and the US combined, around a tenth of what Google’s self-driving unit Waymo has logged.
The move will thrust the AV unicorn squarely in the Chinese self-driving race. Mobility giant Didi as well as AutoX, a rival company backed by Alibaba, are piloting autonomous ride-hailing services in Shanghai. The three companies are currently the rising stars in China’s AV competition, and are ranked within the top 10 for self-driven miles in California’s annual self-driving report.
Pony.ai’s Shanghai debut will come just two weeks after Didi began offering rides to members of its early rider program within a geo-fenced area of around 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) in Jiading district.
Still, Chinese AV startups may be a long ways from mass-producing fully automated cars because of costs and technical and regulatory hurdles. Each of Didi’s custom-built Volvos are equipped with nearly 20 sensors including three Lidars, seven cameras, and a bunch of radars, and cost more than RMB 1 million ($143,000) per unit. Didi expects to operate more than 1 million self-driving cars on its platform by 2030, Meng Xing, COO of Didi’s self-driving subsidiary said last month in a webcast.
Weride, an AV startup backed by the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, kicked off its robotaxi program with a fleet of 20 Nissan vehicles in its home city of Guangzhou late last year. Guangzhou in southern China on Friday gave the green light to Weride to test 10 self-driving cars without safety drivers on public roads. A Weride spokeswoman confirmed to TechNode on Friday that it was the second company worldwide to test fully driverless vehicles on open roads, after Waymo.
Chinese AV startups have accelerated moves to transport passengers via self-driving cars as the government is eager to make inroads in the technology’s development. The Beijing municipal government released China’s first rules for AV road testing in December 2017, while Shanghai issued in September the country’s first permits for AV passenger service pilot programs to SAIC, Didi, and BMW.