China’s biggest search engine Baidu has transported more than 100,000 passengers in autonomous vehicles as part of a robotaxi pilot program, and the number will “soon surge to” more than 1 million, CEO Robin Li said.

Why it matters: Accelerating passenger numbers for Baidu’s self-driving pilot underscore China’s growing efforts to win the global autonomous vehicle (AV) race. It also signals that the Chinese government is lifting restrictions on driverless vehicle tests across the country.

  • China’s top industry regulator on Tuesday revealed plans to release revised national guidelines for AVs to provide more public roads for passenger transport and logistics testing in self-driving cars, reported Shanghai Securities News (in Chinese).

Details: More than 100,000 riders have tried out Baidu’s autonomous ride-hailing service in cities such as Beijing and nearby Cangzhou, as well as Changsha in central Hunan province, and southwestern municipality Chongqing, Li said on Tuesday during the annual Baidu World 2020 technology conference.

  • Li estimated that the robotaxi passenger number will soon surpass 1 million. In the future, with AVs and supporting roadside infrastructure deployed at scale in 2025, he added, more efficient public transport would contribute up to 4.8% to the GDP.
  • Authorities granted the company permission on Tuesday to test two fully driverless vehicles in Changsha, meaning that a human safety driver is no longer required behind the wheel.
  • Still, Chinese regulators require a human driver stay alert in the passenger seat, as well as a safety operator for remote takeover, according to a local media report (in Chinese).
  • Changsha currently allows driverless testing on a public road 15 kilometers (around nine miles) in length and a closed testing facility, but has allowed Baidu’s AV fleet to test passenger transport in 130-square kilometer area in downtown since April.
  • The internet giant expects to expand its testing scope significantly as more regional governments ease restrictions. Last month, Beijing local authorities issued licenses for the company to offer rides to the public on 700 kilometers of roads in the city outskirts.
  • Baidu is operating a fleet of 500 AVs in a total of 27 cities worldwide. It is ranked in the top spot within China with 6 million kilometers test driven as of August, followed by Toyota-backed AV startup Pony AI, which has logged 2.5 million kilometers.

Context: Baidu is not the only company in China testing AVs without a trained driver behind the wheel. Weride, a self-driving startup backed by Nissan, Renault, and Mitsubishi, has been testing 10 AVs without a human driver present in the southern city of Guangzhou for two months. Weride earlier this month announced its robotaxi pilot has completed upwards of 90,000 rides.

  • Home to Weride and Pony AI, Guangzhou currently leads the market from a legal perspective. In July, it allowed Weride to test fully driverless vehicles on public roads across an area of nearly 100 kilometers, making it the first company to do so in China.

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