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Baidu launches robotic taxi business, following Beijing City’s price approval




A security guard boarded a self-propelled robot taxi on October 13, 2020 in Beijing, China, a few days after Baidu started trial operations of its Apollo Robotaxi.

Zhao Jing | Visual China Group | Getty pictures

BEIJING – Baidu can start collecting robot taxi prices in part of Beijing from Thursday, the Chinese technology giant told CNBC this week, marking a major step towards building its driverless taxi business.

The regulatory approval to support robot axis in China comes as local authorities in the US have developed in a similar direction.

However, the relocation of Beijing city has extra weight.

Approval from China̵[ads1]7;s capital marks the first time such a large city in the country has allowed companies to charge the public for robot taxi rides. It facilitates other cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to do the same, Wei Dong, vice president and head of security operations, at Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

He expects these cities to trade later this year or early next year.

How much will it cost?

As of Thursday, Baidu’s Apollo unit, which operates the robot taxi business, can collect fares from passengers taking one of 67 self-driving cars in Beijing’s suburb of Yizhuang.

Although the company did not disclose exact prices, it said that the prices would be comparable to the high prices available through apps like Didi, which can cost twice as much as regular trips.

Baidu has been offering free robot taxi rides in Yizhuang since October 2020. As of Wednesday, the robot taxi app, marked “Luobo Kuaipao,” showed a trial price of 34 yuan ($ 5.31) for a 3-mile ride (1.86 miles) from a Sam’s Club in Yizhuang to a nearby subway station.

The same route costs around 14 yuan ($ 2.19) through Didi’s basic express car service. Didi’s premium price for the same route is 27 yuan.

So far, the news with a free, self-driving taxi has drawn a number of regular users in Yizhuang. Wei said that more than 20,000 users each take at least 10 trips a month. It is unclear how many will continue to use the service when they have to pay for it, but Wei aims to have another 100 robotic taxi cars verified each year.

Robotaxis races for approval in the USA and China

Wei expects that over the next year or two, the regulatory momentum is likely to support testing of completely driverless vehicles – those without safety drivers – on public roads.

The cost of a human driver is about 60% of the user fee for carpooling, according to a Credit Suisse report last month.

On November 16, the Alibaba-backed autonomous car carrier AutoX claimed that their completely driverless robot axes now operate in the largest single region of China – 168 square kilometers (65 square kilometers) in the Pingshan district of the southern city of Shenzhen. AutoX said it began in January to allow the public to sign up for robot taxi rides. It was not immediately clear if it cost to drive.

Baidu’s permit for commercial autonomous vehicle operations covers an area of ​​60 square kilometers, including a city called Yizhuang which is home to many businesses such as JD.com’s headquarters. The region is about a half-hour drive south of central Beijing.

Beijing City Council has also made Yizhuang a test site for autonomous driving by letting companies try out their projects there. These include JD’s unmanned delivery vehicles and Baidus robotic taxi vehicles.

Baidu’s expansion plans

Last week, Baidu CEO Robin Li said the company plans to expand the Apollo Go robotic taxi service to 65 cities by 2025, and to 100 cities by 2030. It is up from five cities at the moment.

The company also announced that the next generation of robotic taxi vehicles will cost half the price to produce compared to the previous generation. The models are co-branded with three electric car manufacturers: Chinese startup WM Motor, Aion – a spin-off of state-owned GAC – and state-owned BAIC Groups Arcfox.

In June, Baidu and BAIC claimed that they could produce 1,000 driverless cars for 480,000 yuan ($ 75,000) each, compared to the average of 1 million yuan for an autonomous car.

Wei joined Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group in May after seven years with Shouqi Limousine & Chauffeur, where he was CEO. The company operates an advanced version of Didi.

He said Baidu’s strategy for building a robotic taxi business is to reduce the cost of self-propelled technology and target specific user scenarios.

Instead of taking full advantage of lidar technology – which requires expensive sensors to make detailed maps before the robot axis can operate – Wei generally talked about using algorithms to increase the efficient use of hardware.

Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

On the consumer front, Wei said that Apollo would focus on ways to give the user an experience beyond just one mode of transportation – such as showing the streets of Beijing from 20 years ago on car windows, instead of the current street view.

Another strategy is to find ways to use the robot axis for non-travel functions, such as a room for medical treatment or a public library, he said.

Although Apollo is only a small part of Baidu, the development is in line with the CEO’s attempts to convince investors that the wider company’s future lies in artificial intelligence and related areas such as autonomous driving.

The company’s fastest area for revenue growth in the third quarter was “non-web marketing revenue”, up 76% from a year ago to 5.2 billion yuan ($ 806 million). Baidu attributed the growth to the demand for cloud computing and its other AI businesses.

– CNBC Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.



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