Chinese internet giant Baidu has secured permits to offer a fully automated commercial driverless car service, with no human driver, in Chongqing and Wuhan via the company’s autonomous passenger transportation unit, Apollo Go.
Baidu’s victories in Wuhan and Chongqing come a few months after the company obtained permission to provide driverless transportation services to the public on open roads in Beijing. The difference here is that the service in Beijing is still not a commercial service — Baidu offers free driverless rides in the name of research, development and public acceptance — and the Beijing permit still requires a human factor in the car’s front passenger seat.
When Baidu launches in Wuhan and Chongqing, it will be the first time an independent car company will be able to offer fully driverless car rental service in China, Baidu claims. Meanwhile in the US, Cruise recently started offering a commercial driverless service in San Francisco, and Waymo has been offering commercial service in Arizona since 2020.
“This is a massive qualitative change,” Wei Dong, vice president and chief safety operations officer for Baidu Intelligent Driving Group, said in a statement. “We believe these permits are a major milestone on the road to the inflection point when the industry can finally roll out fully autonomous driving services at scale.”
In Wuhan, Baidu’s service will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and cover an area of 13 square kilometers in the city’s Economic and Technological Development Zone, which is known as the “Auto City” in China. Chongqing service will operate from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm in an area of 30 square kilometers in Yongchuan District. Each city will have a fleet of five fifth-generation Apollo robotic hubs, according to Baidu.
The areas in which Baidu will operate are not densely populated, and feature many new and wide roads that facilitate the operation of autonomous systems. Both cities provide favorable regulatory and technology environments for Baidu to launch its first driverless commercial service. In Chongqing, Yongchuan has been a self-driving pilot area, which has accumulated 30 robotic vehicles worth one million kilometers of test drive.
The area in Wuhan where Apollo Go will operate has renovated 321 kilometers of roads for antiviral vehicle testing since 2021, which includes 106 kilometers covered by the 5G (V2X) vehicle infrastructure. Vehicles can rely on V2X technology to gather real-time information about their surroundings and share these perceptions with other vehicles or infrastructure, giving the automated engine another form of sensing for reference, apart from lidar, radar and onboard cameras. The V2X infrastructure also helps Baidu monitor vehicles remotely and drive vehicles if needed.
Last month, Baidu unveiled designs for the sixth generation of the Apollo RT6 EV electric robot taxi, a cross between an SUV and a pickup truck that comes with a detachable steering wheel. The company said it was able to cut production costs by developing the in-house battery electrical architecture, bringing the cost of each vehicle to $37,000 per unit. This will help Baidu reach the testing point on a small scale and deploy the RT6 by next year, and branch out to large scale in 2024.
Aside from its new service in Wuhan and Chongqing and its driverless service in Beijing, Apollo Go also has a presence in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Changsha, Cangzhou and Yang Quan Wuchen. Baidu said it plans to expand its passenger service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030. The company said that by the end of this year, Baidu expects to add another 300 fifth-generation Apollo vehicles to its existing fleet.