January 30, 2023

It announced that it had obtained permits to operate a prepaid Robotaxi service in China, with no human safety driver on board. Previously, they worked with human operators either behind the wheel or in the passenger seats. Baidu says they will immediately start operations in Chongqing and Wuhan, two large cities in central China. They have previously worked, with the passenger seat operator in some cases, in several cities in eastern China. The service will only be from about 9 to 5, in an area of ​​13 square kilometers in Wuhan and an area of ​​30 square kilometers in Yongchuan District of Chongqing. The Wuhan area is a special area with 321 km of approved roads, 106 km of which have private 5G allowing low latency remote monitoring and even remote vehicle driving.

What is remarkable about this is the ejection of the human from the car. For an outside audience, it is very difficult to gauge the level of progress of the robocar team. Everyone posts great videos of their cars while driving and solving various problems. The problem is that you can make a video like this at almost any level of advancement, if you choose what to show. As such, we have to measure the teams by the risks they are willing to take and the number of people they will allow to see all aspects of the process.

The decision that no one was in the car meant there was a great presentation by the team on the board where they showed the car was good enough to be released that way, with members of the public and no one holding the wheel or hitting an emergency stop if a problem came up. This tells us that the team made a compelling case, the quality is good – or maybe the team is reckless, which we’ll know soon enough. Baidu claims 32 million kilometers of operations so far. Baidu states that while there is a remote monitor, they have approximately 2-3 vehicles per remote monitor, so it’s not a 1:1 ratio.

Vehicles have to pick up/drop off at designated stations, rather than anywhere there is a free berth the way human drivers do. “PuDo” is his own problem that not all teams have solved yet. (Cruise had trouble just doing PuDo on the street without setting off, although this is common at night for taxis.)

Another measure of the team’s self-assessment of how far the distance is is whether they will allow the audience to see random rides. Again, it is not difficult to take a guest from the press on a well-planned and well-tested route. If you allow members of the public to ride anywhere and at any time, you are showing that you are confident that this will work. Some teams require riders to sign nondisclosure agreements and not create videos. The most trusted teams allowed anyone to post these videos. Again, this says the company’s own testing has told them their car won’t embarrass them in the videos. Baidu says riders may make and post videos of their rides, so it will be interesting to see.

It is not enough, of course, to allow this. Tesla
It is actually the most open ever, and has allowed more than 100,000 of their customers to try out their drive system model, myself included. Unsupervised operation is not permitted, of course. Having allowed it, Tesla revealed that its system is very low quality and badly needs this oversight, so it doesn’t get high marks for quality, but it does get high marks to let us see the quality. Those who won’t let us see the quality might be assumed to be worse than Tesla.

To some extent, this also means that they have convinced the regulators of this, but the fact is that the regulators are not really able to assess the quality of the robot. Even teams figure out exactly how to do it, but they’re the only ones with a lot of knowledge. What they dared to do shows what their own ratings said.

In the USA, Waymo has been operating vehicles in Arizona without a supervising driver for several years now. More recently, Cruise began such operations at night in a limited area of ​​downtown SF, and Waymo also began operations there at all times, but did not start service entirely without a crew.

Being able to collect money is not a major step, although it is often very popular. Nobody is trying to run these services as a business yet. Getting paid allows them to see how the public interacts with the service when they have to pay for it, and to try other types of fees. Currently, most services charge similar or slightly lower fees than Uber
. The robotaxi service will eventually have to be lower than Uber, and possibly done with a completely different pricing structure that isn’t just a price per mile. Baidu Apollo taxi service costs 16 yuan plus 2.8 yuan / km, which is similar to human-driven services in some regions of China.

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