Chinese tech companies Apollo Go and Baidu’s Pony.ai announced Thursday they had received permission from Beijing city authorities to remove the security driver from part of their robotaxi business in a suburban part of the city.
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BEIJING — China’s capital has come a step closer to allowing ordinary people to take driverless robotic taxis.
For the first time in the country, two Chinese companies: BaiduApollo Go and Pony.ai announced Thursday that they have received permission from Beijing city authorities to remove the security driver from part of their robotaxi business in a suburban part of the city.
Cars will still need a staff member to sit inside, but no longer necessarily in the driver’s seat.
It’s a move to allow companies to run a robotaxi business without having to pay staff to drive the cars, eliminating the cost of a taxi driver altogether. It is unclear when the Chinese government will allow robot taxis to charge fares for rides without human staff in the cars.
In the US, Alphabet’s Waymo and Cruise, the GM subsidiary, can already operate public robotic taxis without human staff in the vehicles. Laws for testing robot taxis and charging passengers vary by city and state.
Waymo can charge customers for its robotaxis operating in Arizona, while Cruise awaits approval of a final permit to charge passengers in San Francisco.
Tu Le, founder of Beijing-based advisory firm Sino Auto Insights, noted that GM’s Cruise can only operate its driverless robotaxi service in San Francisco at night, while the latest relaxation of restrictions in Beijing allows for nearly driverless robotaxis to operate during the day. .
That would allow Chinese carriers to collect more data during peak traffic periods.
Under the new permit from the city of Beijing, Baidu said it can operate 10 robotaxis without safety drivers and plans to add 30 more vehicles at an unspecified later date.
Pony.ai can initially operate four robotaxis without safety drivers under the new rules and hopes to add more in the future, a spokesman said.
Beijing authorities in the suburban Yizhuang district confirmed that Baidu and Pony.ai received the new robotaxi approvals at a press conference on Thursday. The government added that the operational area tripled to the equivalent of about 23 square miles.
Rules for testing and operating robotaxis also vary by region of China.
The latest move by the city of Beijing comes less than six months since the municipality allowed Baidu and Pony.ai charge fees for robotaxis in suburban Yizhuang District. The approval to charge fees was the first for a major city in China.
Baidu said its Apollo Go robotaxi business subsequently began charging fees in southwest China’s Chongqing municipality and a smaller central Chinese city, Yangquan, in February. Cars still require a safety driver.
On Sunday, the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou gave the Pony.ai-powered robotaxis the same designation as traditional taxis — the first such license in China. The license allows Pony.ai to collect fees in the district. Cars currently have safety drivers.
-CNBC miguel wayland contributed to this report.