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Baidu launched robotaxi services for the general public in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, with a fleet of 45 autonomous cars in September 2019. Photo: Handout

Chinese internet giant Baidu offers free trial robotaxi rides through search and map apps in Changsha

  • Baidu’s Apollo robotaxi service was first introduced in Changsha city in September, with an initial fleet of 45 autonomous cars
  • The new stage of trials removes previous screening and safety training requirements for passengers, making them available to all users in the city
Chinese internet giant Baidu is offering free trial robotaxi rides to the general public in Changsha and making them available through its regular search and navigation apps, as the coronavirus pandemic bolsters its faith in an “unmanned and intelligent” future.

Starting from this week, commuters in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, can hail a free autonomous ride via its popular search engine app Baidu and navigation app Baidu Maps, the company announced in a statement on Monday. It added that this is the first time robotaxi services are being offered on nation-wide apps.

Baidu’s Apollo robotaxi service was first introduced in the Chinese city in September, with an initial fleet of 45 autonomous cars, about two years after Google’s self-driving unit Waymo started its pilot project in Phoenix, Arizona.

Previously, users had to go through a round of screening and safety training before they could try Baidu’s service out. The new stage of trials removes this requirement, as well as the need to download a stand-alone ride-hailing app.

“Through over six months of operation among seed users, Baidu’s Apollo robotaxi program has set up a complete mechanism for safety evaluation and technical support,” the Nasdaq-listed company said in the statement on Monday. “This time [we are ready to] launch the service at a large-scale to the public.”

We tried out a futuristic, self-driving robotaxi in China

The company’s move to expand the reach of its robotaxi service comes as companies race to get a head start in self-driving technology, known for its low cost and high operational efficiency.

The promise of a driverless future has drawn billions of dollars of investment globally and is becoming one of the key sectors in artificial intelligence, an industry where both China and the US are seeking supremacy.

Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing platform, and self-driving start-up AutoX are both expected to launch robotaxi services in Shanghai soon. The latter, along with fellow Chinese autonomous driving start-up, also got the green light to operate autonomous rides on Californian roads last June.

In Navigant Research’s annual survey in April, Baidu was the only Chinese company to be classified as a leader in automated driving systems. It was listed in the top five companies in the ranking for the first time, trailing only Waymo, Ford and Cruise, according to the US publication.

The Chinese company’s experience with the Covid-19 pandemic in recent months has also further affirmed its belief in an autonomous future, according to an internal memo.

Baidu is among the Chinese tech companies that have pitched in with funds and new applications to help to tackle the pandemic, with the company’s initiatives including free online health consultations and a map showing the locations of known coronavirus patients.

“The experience in the epidemic and supporting the frontline has helped us understand that an unmanned and intelligent future is the best solution for human beings in the face of a large-scale emergency crisis,” Li Zhenyu, Baidu’s vice-president and general manager of its intelligent driving group, wrote in the memo.

Baidu has been working with more than 60 carmakers on creating about 400 production models for autonomous vehicles, according to Li.

The company’s current trials in Changsha cover 130 square kilometres in the Chinese cities, with routes running through residential areas, shopping and commercial zones as well as industrial parks, Baidu said in the statement.

As is still standard for such services, there will be a safety driver in the car to serve as a backup and ensure safety. Passengers will be able to watch the progress of the ride, including indicators such as obstructions and speed limits, from a screen within the car.