Residents of Chinese metropolises Guangzhou and Beijing may be in for a surprise the next time they hail a cab – some of them are now self-driving.
Autonomous driving company Pony.ai is the operator, and the only business of its kind granted a license to run driverless cabs in China, the company said. It has tested vehicles, including a driverless semi truck, in all four of China’s tier-one cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen), and actual service in Guangzhou marks its first formal deployment.
According to Pony.ai, it had to meet stringent licensing requirements that included 24 months of testing in China or abroad, at least 1 million kilometers of driven distance, at least 200,000 of which must be driven in Guangzhou’s automated driving test area. During the test period, Pony.ai also had to maintain a flawless driving record without any active liability accidents.
Permission was given to Pony.ai to deploy 100 robotaxis in the 800km² Nansha district of Guangzhou between the hours of 08:30 and 22:30, and Pony.ai will charge standard taxi pricing for the city. The company said it has plans to expand to the rest of Guangzhou over time, and it also has a fee-charging permit in Beijing, where it plans to launch services.
While Pony.ai may be the first to get a license and have widespread operations, it wasn’t technically the first company to offer self-driving taxis in China. That happened last year, when Baidu, which rolled 10 self-driving SUVs out to the area around Shougang Park, the 2022 Winter Olympics venue.
Since then Baidu has deployed limited self-driving cab services to the downtown area of Shenzhen, and said it has plans to expand to 100 cities by 2030.
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Self-driving technology has been slowly creeping toward critical mass, but even Tesla CEO Elon Musk has admitted it’s a near-impossible dream.
Research also indicates that the rate of safety improvements developed in autonomous vehicles is slowing, but that hasn’t stopped countries like the UK from passing laws around the use of self-driving vehicles that have yet to actually materialize.
According to Pony.ai co-founder and CTO Tiancheng Lou, the current trajectory of self-driving regulation means the world is ready. “The inclusion of autonomous vehicles in the [taxi management laws] proves that both government policy and the public are increasingly accepting robotaxis as a form of everyday transportation,” Lou said.
That appears to be the case in countries other than China, too. In the US, Cruise and Waymo were both given permission to operate light-duty taxis in San Francisco, but with a lot more restrictions than Pony.ai faces in Guangzhou. Cruise and Waymo cabs can only operate at night between 22:00 and 06:00, can’t exceed 30 miles per hour, and can’t operate when rain or fog is too heavy.
Pony.ai has also tested its tech in Silicon Valley, and plans to expand to China’s other two tier-one cities in 2024 and 2025. Since going live, Pony.ai said it has completed more than 700,000 trips, with nearly 80 percent repeat users and a 99 percent positive rating. ®