The city of Cangzhou in northern China granted search giant Baidu a permit to begin commercial robotaxi services on some of its streets, the company said on Monday.

Why it matters: Baidu is the first Chinese company with permission to offer robotaxi rides to paying customers, which requires additional permits, and is a strategic milestone for its costly, years-long quest for self-driving cars.

Details: Baidu will be allowed to operate its autonomous ride-hailing vehicles with safety drivers on public roads spanning 229 kilometers (142 miles) in areas including the city’s downtown, the company said Monday in an announcement. The company can also begin testing out trip fares with its volunteers using discounts and coupons, according to a deployment permit issued by the government on Friday.

  • A total of 35 robotaxis will kick off the deployment, the company said, though a spokeswoman did not specify a timeframe when asked.
  • Cangzhou also granted permits for another 10 Baidu AVs to drive without a human driver behind the wheel, state-owned media Hebei Daily reported Wednesday (in Chinese).

Context: Cangzhou, the third-biggest city in northern Hebei province, was late to the AV race, lagging Beijing and Shanghai by over a year. However, it is catching up quickly by leveraging its partnership with Baidu, which is accelerating its autonomous transportation initiative.

  • Baidu began piloting its robotaxi service to public in Cangzhou in August, but was prohibited from charging fees from riders until recently.
  • Cangzhou granted its first AV testing permit to Baidu for a fleet of 30 vehicles in late 2019. The city has the country’s third-largest self-driving testing road network, following Beijing with 700 kilometers and Shanghai’s 560 kilometers.
  • Guangzhou, China’s southern gateway, and Changsha, the capital city of the central Hunan province, have both opened around 160 kilometers of public roads for AV tests.
  • Baidu has not yet received a green light from Changsha authorities to charge fees for robotaxi services. Neither has WeRide, a Guangzhou-based AV upstart.

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: or Twitter: @jill_shen_sh