China’s tech giant Baidu officially launched an autonomous ride-share service in the capital city Beijing, after receiving the country’s first permit for commercial robotaxi services.

Why it matters: This is the first time that the Chinese government has allowed companies to legally charge Uber-like fees to the public for their robotaxi services, a major milestone for Chinese self-driving car development. 

Details: The service, known as Apollo Go (or Luobo Kuaipao in Chinese), ferries passengers around a 60 square kilometer (around 23 square miles) area in the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Zone in the south of the city, Baidu said on Thursday.

  • A 55-year-old female resident surnamed Yuan took the first commercial trip on the platform and paid RMB 1.34 ($0.2) for her 3km ride (with a 95% discount), according to an announcement released Thursday (in Chinese).
  • Qualified users can locate one of 67 autonomous cars in the vicinity and hail a ride by themselves by using the Apollo Go App. Baidu is currently operating the fleet from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day in the area.

Context: Baidu, as well as self-driving unicorn Pony.ai, obtained approval from the head office of the Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area to start charging for rides using autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the zone, China Daily reported on Thursday.

  • Pony.ai said in an announcement (in Chinese) that it will gradually transition its free trial service, which began in April, into a commercial one in the future, without revealing further details.
  • Baidu in May launched a fully driverless, paid robotaxi pilot project using 10 AVs in the Shougang Industrial Park on the outskirts of Beijing, and plans to expand the fleet to more than 100 vehicles during the Beijing Winter Olympics next February.
  • The search engine firm claimed its robotaxi project offered 115,000 rides during the third quarter of this year, and its testing vehicles had logged 10 million miles as of September. Google’s self-driving unit Waymo announced in January 2020 that its vehicles had driven 20 million miles on public roads, Quartz reported.

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