Creating robotic ride-hail vehicles capable of transporting people is proving a hard nut to crack, so Chinese self-driving companies are exploring other commercially viable paths to achieve mass adoption of the technology.

Robotaxi developers are “evolving into platforms” that enable a variety of vehicles for different user scenarios, Tu T. Le, managing director of consultancy Sino Auto Insights, said Friday during TechNode’s Emerge 2021 conference in Beijing.

“It is very difficult for autonomous vehicle companies to be profitable with the one single-use case of ride-hailing,” Le said. He added that applications in which autonomous vehicles (AVs) operate at low speeds with cheaper sensors and higher utilization rates could be “closer to commercialization en masse.”

Le’s comment highlighted the growing uncertainties surrounding the future of driverless ride-hailing services, or robotaxis. As a result AV players are shifting their attention to more practical applications.

A commercial robotaxi is the “holy grail” of autonomy, because it would address the most complicated traffic scenarios by offering timely and comfortable rides to customers in dense urban areas, according to Da Fang, co-founder and chief scientist of driverless technology startup QCraft.

The sector has been in a trough of disillusionment over the past few years, as Google’s self-driving unit Waymo and General Motors’ affiliate Cruise, both pioneers in AV research, suffered several setbacks in their much-hyped quests to launch a driverless ride-hailing service.

Waymo’s valuation in late 2019 was cut 40% to $105 billion by Morgan Stanley, followed by the departure of its CEO John Krafcik and several other executives earlier this year. The company’s vehicles had traveled autonomously for more than 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) on public roads as of early 2020, but Waymo’s fully driverless robotaxi pilot is still only available in certain areas of Phoenix, Arizona, after a couple of years of rigorous testing.

As capital is being reallocated into research and development of more promising applications,  autonomous bus service looks to be one of the more appealing bets. Backed by Chinese big tech firms Meituan and Bytedance, QCraft is one of the early movers in this sector. It has piloted a fleet of around 70 self-driving buses for public passenger transit in five domestic cities including Shenzhen and Wuhan since July 2020.

“There are several scenarios where we think AVs have actually become technologically viable and robobus is one of them,” Da said, adding that autonomous shuttles encounter situations similar to those faced by robotaxis in urban areas, but lower driving speeds and fixed routes reduce crash risks.

Chinese makers of the underlying technology, whether big tech companies or rising startups, are now training their sights on commercial vehicles, including trucks and vans for freight delivery. Toyota-backed Pony.ai has reportedly been testing its self-driving trucking technology in Guangzhou since December, while WeRide, Nissan’s bet in China, earlier this month announced moves to test driverless vans in everyday delivery scenarios.

Then came the news on Sept. 17 of Baidu’s entry into the logistics industry with the debut of Xingtu, the first heavy-duty truck model built upon Baidu’s “Apollo” autonomous driving system. Baidu, viewed as China’s answer to Google, had previously announced a seemingly ambitious target of deploying 3,000 robotaxis in 30 cities over the next three years. But that figure would mean  passengers in each city, on average, would have access to fewer than 100 robotaxis. 

“A pilot program with multiple model types of AVs also makes sense from a technology point of view. You simply need to collect data as much as possible by testing different types of vehicles in various kinds of scenarios,” said Da.

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