Large-scale commercial operation of highly autonomous vehicles (AVs) could become a reality “sooner than expected” in China, Baidu’s CEO Robin Li said on Thursday at the 2022 World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai.

“I think it would take a longer time to commercialize Level 3 autonomous vehicles, because there remain questions about who is liable in the case of accidents involving these vehicles,” Li said (our translation).

Level 4 vehicles, however, make it clear that the manufacturer or the owner, rather than the driver, is responsible in a crash, Li added.

Level 4 refers to a fully autonomous system where vehicles travel from point A to point B without requiring any human intervention. In Level 3, also called the semi-autonomous level, the driver is still required to take over the vehicle in emergencies, according to definitions set by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

After operating Apollo Go (Luobo Kuaipao, in Chinese), its autonomous ride-hailing service, for the last two years, Baidu said on Tuesday that it has offered more than 1 million public robotaxi rides in a dozen of major Chinese cities as of July. The search engine giant currently operates around 500 self-driving cars in China, with plans to expand that fleet to 3,000 vehicles in 30 cities by 2023.

Baidu may be a pioneer in autonomous cars, but rivals are catching up. Chinese automaker GAC Group plans to begin piloting autonomous ride-hailing vehicles along with human-operated taxis via its mobility platform OnTime in Guangzhou later this year, General Manager Feng Xingya told investors on Tuesday. The carmaker, which produces vehicles in tie-ups with Toyota and Honda in China, has been testing robotaxis with self-driving upstarts WeRide and Pony.ai.

Although excitement over self-driving vehicles has been wearing somewhat thin globally since last year as the technology gets stuck in the slow lane, China is ramping up efforts to support the sector. In August, the central government released its first national rules for commercial autonomous ride-hailing services, while Shenzhen became the first Chinese city to establish a defined legal landscape where legislators can impose a degree of liability for car crashes involving AVs.

Li called for more uniform policies with regards to driverless cars, such as a universal standard that allows companies to remove human safety drivers in more driving scenarios, as the industry continues to face multiple regulatory hurdles to mass deployment. “The window of opportunity is fleeting,” Li added. “More efforts need to be made to push forward legal reform and open the bottleneck on AVs.”   

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