By Associated Press
BEIJING — With no one at the wheel, a self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. is rolling down a Beijing street when its sensors spot the corner of a delivery cart jutting into its lane.
The taxi stops a half-car-length away. “So sorry,” a recorded voice tells passengers. The steering wheel turns on its own as the taxi makes its way around the cart. A Baidu technician watches from the front passenger seat.
Baidu /zigman2/quotes/209050136/composite BIDU -3.25% is China’s highest-profile competitor in a multibillion-dollar race with rival autonomous vehicle developers including Alphabet Inc.‘s /zigman2/quotes/202490156/composite GOOGL +0.52% /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +0.45% Waymo and General Motors Co.‘s /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +0.83% Cruise to turn their futuristic tech into a consumer product.
Baidu and a rival, Pony.ai, received China’s first licenses in April to operate taxis with no one in the driver’s seat but with a safety supervisor on board. That came 18 months after Waymo started driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona, in October 2020.
Founded in 2000 as a search engine operator, Baidu has expanded into artificial intelligence, processor chips and other technology. It says its autonomous vehicles could, if successful, make driving cheaper, easier and safer.
“We believe the top goal of autonomous driving is to reduce human-caused traffic accidents,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group.
Autonomous driving is one of an array of emerging technologies from artificial intelligence to renewable energy that Chinese companies are pouring billions of dollars into trying to create, urged on by the ruling Communist Party.
Beijing wants to join the United States, Europe and Japan in the ranks of technology powers to build its prosperity and global influence. That holds out the possibility of new inventions but also fuels tension with Washington and its allies, which see China as a strategic challenger.
Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving platform was launched in 2017 and the Apollo Go self-driving taxi service three years later.
Taxi service with a driver at the wheel to take over in an emergency started in 2020 and has expanded to Beijing, Shanghai and eight other cities. Apollo Go says it provided 213,000 rides in the final quarter of last year, making it the world’s busiest self-driving taxi service.
For rides with no driver and a supervisor in the passenger seat, Apollo Go started in a 60-square-kilometer (23-square-mile) area of Yizhuang, an industrial district on Beijing’s southeastern outskirts with wide streets and few cyclists or pedestrians.
“It’s very convenient,” said Zhao Hui, 43, who uses Baidu taxis in Yizhuang.
“It might feel a little safer” than a human driver, Zhao said. “Sometime there are small objects, maybe some that people don’t notice. They can spot them and stop.”
Other developers include Deeproute.ai and AutoX in Shenzhen. Pony.ai, founded in 2016 and backed by venture capital, is road-testing autonomous cars and semi-trailer trucks.
Industry plans are “very aggressive to deliver the robo-taxi to the consumer,” said Owen Chen of S&P Global Mobility.
Automaker Geely /zigman2/quotes/200716015/delayed HK:175 +3.33% , owner of Volvo Car, Geely, Lotus and Polestar, has announced plans for satellite-linked autonomous vehicles. Network equipment maker Huawei Technologies Ltd. is working on self-driving mining and industrial vehicles.
The ruling party is promoting automation to shore up economic growth by making its shrinking, aging workforce more productive. China’s working-age population has fallen by 5% since its 2011 peak and is forecast to slide further.