On Tuesday, the self-driving car startup Pony.ai announced that it partnered with ride-hailing company Caocao to provide robotaxi services in Beijing.

Why it matters: Autonomous driving is still a long way from commercialization. The deployment of autonomous vehicles on a familiar ride-hailing app might help Pony.ai get closer to making money from its pilot projects.  

Details: Starting from Wednesday, public passengers will have the option to choose Pony.ai’s custom-made test models of robotaxi from the Caocao app on their phones. However, the robotaxis fleet of 30 or so will be restricted to a designated area in southern Beijing. A safety driver behind the wheel is not required, but each car will have a monitor in a passenger seat.

  • There is an RMB 18 ($2.67) base fare for all rides, and longer routes will cost RMB 3 per kilometer beyond three kilometers during rush hours and RMB 2.6 during off-peak hours. By comparison, local ride-hailing services usually have a base fare of RMB 14 per ride and RMB 1.8 per kilometer over three kilometers.

Context: In April, Pony.ai and Baidu received permits from the Beijing city authorities to offer driverless rides in an area of 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) in the city’s southeast Yizhuang district. The local government allowed the two companies to charge fares last November.

  • Backed by big automakers Toyota and FAW, Pony.ai has been operating a robotaxi pilot project commercially on the outskirts of Guangzhou since May and has partnered with T3, an emerging rival to Didi, as well as Ontime, a ride-hailing service of Chinese automaker GAC.
  • Last August, Chinese tech giant Baidu launched its proprietary autonomous ride-hailing platform called Apollo Go, also known as “Luobo Kuaipao” in Chinese. The company completed over 196,000 trips during the first three months of this year. Baidu has launched commercial operations of robotaxis in three domestic cities, including Beijing and the southwestern municipality of Chongqing.
  • Rival WeRide also collaborated with GAC for a commercial launch for customers of Ontime in Guangzhou this year, while self-driving unicorn Momenta is piloting a non-commercial fleet of 60 robocars for ride-hailing with SAIC in Shanghai and the nearby city of Suzhou. ByteDance and Meituan-backed Qcraft also deploy a few dozen autonomous vehicles with T3 for free in Suzhou.

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: @jill_shen_sh