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China issues its first fully driverless taxi licenses to Baidu

Baidu’s Apollo robot taxis have been allowed to operate in parts of Chongqing and Wuhan. The licenses reportedly do not require the presence of a human driver, with both cities only getting five robot taxis at most. 

However, the services are geofenced, and the license restricts operations to daytime. In Wuhan, the taxis will operate in the 13 square kilometre block of the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone between 9:00 AM to 5:00 OM. Chongqing gets a much bigger area of 30 square kilometres in the Yongchun district between 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM. 

This isn’t exactly the first time China has allowed robot taxis, with Baidu’s Apollo and Toyota-backed Pony.ai getting permits to deploy such taxis in a 60 square kilometre area in Beijing without a safety driver in the driving seat back in April. However, the Beijing permit still requires a safety driver to be present in the passenger seat. 

Baidu’s current gen robot taxis. | Source: Baidu

Baidu isn’t the only Chinese tech company to offer robot taxis either. Alibaba, Huawei and Xiaomi are also set to enter the market. Baidu is also working with local governments in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen to get licenses to test autonomous and unpaid robot taxies in the cities above within a year. 

The entire thing is more of an experiment at the moment rather than a step to replace local cabbies in the country. That said, Baidu claims that it has over a million orders pending for its robot taxis and has even recently introduced a much cheaper model to promote further adoption with scope for additional income for cab companies thanks to the included space for a vending machine. 

China seems to be leaning heavily on the idea of all-electric and self-driving vehicles. The country has also tested “smart highways” built with sensors to help autonomous vehicles move faster and manage traffic flow, reducing time wasted at usual bottlenecks such as traffic lights. 

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