Chinese smart automobility start-up WeRide last week announced it had formed a joint venture with a traditional taxi company in Guangzhou, revving up its autonomous driving ambitions in China as the industry strives to catch up with US peers. Launched by WeRide and its strategic partner Baiyun Taxi Group, the largest taxi company in south China under Guangzhou Public Transport Group, and SCI (Guangzhou) Group, WeRide RoboTaxi will roll out an autonomous cab service using e-hailing, the company said. Founded in Silicon Valley in 2017, WeRide has focused on research and development (R&D) of Level 4 autonomous driving technologies, which, according to standards defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), means that the car can handle most driving situations independently although a human driver can still request control. The US and China have taken the lead in the development of L4 autonomous driving technologies, and Alphabet's Waymo has been offering commercial self-driving taxis in the Metro Phoenix area of the US since last December. Chinese internet giant Baidu , which has been picked by Beijing to be a national champion in the sector, established an autopilot joint venture with local firms in Central China’s Hunan province this April, aiming to bring 100 robo-taxis to the capital city of Changsha by the end of this year. “With autonomous driving [technology], realistically speaking, the gap between the US and China is about 1 to 2 years and the main factor that restricts [narrowing] the gap is the formulation of policies and regulations,” Tony Han Xu, co-founder and chief executive of Guangzhou-headquartered WeRide, told the Post during the Global Mobile internet Conference (GMIC) in the city last month. Didi follows Google with plan to set up independent self-driving unit China wants smart vehicles to account for half of all new cars sold at home by 2020, according to a road map from the country’s top economic planner. By 2025, the country expects a fully-formed ecosystem around smart vehicles and highly automated cars to take up 15 per cent of sales. However, Waymo remains the pack leader, according to an annual report by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in February, with an average disengagement from the auto function once every 11,000 miles of driving over a 12-month period through November 2018. By contrast, Pony.ai, the front-runner among Chinese companies, reported human intervention once every 1,022 miles. But Han, who was the former chief scientist of Baidu's autonomous driving unit, said t he road test regulations for the autopilot function are stricter in China than in the US. For example in Arizona, where Waymo had been testing its driverless cars, no application is needed for road tests. “[China’s] policies and regulations are more conservative. Of course, we understand that is because the country’s transportation is more complicated and we need to guarantee safety,” said Han. “But the bottom line is that there are more restrictions for development [compared with the US].” In December 2017, Beijing became the first city in China to introduce automatic driving road test regulations, followed by Shanghai in March 2018. Last April, Chinese authorities issued the first national-level regulations on road tests of autonomous vehicles. Guangzhou-based WeRide now has 200 employees globally, with operations in Beijing, Angqing, Anhui province and Silicon Valley in the US. It launched its prototype L4 autonomous driving car, the Nissan LEAF2, in March after it received series A funding led by strategic investor Alliance Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, along with Chinese AI unicorn SenseTime, Hong Kong-listed manufacturing company Johnson Electric and others last October. Two Chinese self-driving start ups given go-ahead for California service While many autopilot technology companies are focused on developing L4 technologies, currently available cars use only conditional automation, classified as Level 3 or lower under SAE standards. Tesla cars are not yet fully self-driving although the company is taking pre-orders for such an option. Tesla’s standard Autopilot, an advanced driver assistance system, offers a combination of ‘adaptive cruise control’ and ‘lane steering’. Meanwhile, Chinese electric car start-up Xpeng launched its G3 ‘2020 edition’ model last month, with an Xpilot function classified as L2.5. Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing platform, this month revealed an independent autonomous driving unit, as the Beijing-based company steps up efforts to be part of China’s push for a driverless future. Although Huawei Technologies’ roll-out of 5G networks has been pressured by a US trade blacklist, Han did not sound too concerned about the long-tern outlook. “Although there is still a long way to go for autonomous driving under 5G networks, it does not mean that L4 automatic driving will not come,” said Han. “It will come soon and change people's lives.” For insights into China technology, be part of our Inside China Tech group on Facebook. Listen to our Inside China Tech podcast and subscribe via iTunes , Spotify or Stitcher . For a comprehensive survey of China’s digital landscape, download the 2019 China Internet Report .