Self-driving Startup AutoX Applies for a Permit to Test its Vehicles Without a Human Backup Driver in California

Self-driving Startup AutoX Applies for a Permit to Test its Vehicles Without a Human Backup Driver in California

Author: Eric Walz   

Silicon Valley is already a hotbed for self-driving car development. Driverless vehicles from companies such as Waymo, Nvidia, Mercedes Benz and a host of other autonomous driving startups are a common sight on Silicon Valley streets and the vehicles can usually be spotted by their roof full of sensors. 

However all of these "self-driving" vehicles actually have safety drivers behind the wheel ready to take over in any unexpected situations. So far, Waymo, self-driving arm of Alphabet, is the only company granted the required permit to operate driverless vehicles with no human behind the wheel.

Now autonomous driving startup AutoX is looking to join Waymo as one of the only two companies granted a permit by the state of California to test self-driving vehicles on public roads without a backup safety driver. AutoX has applied for a permit in California for the testing of autonomous vehicles without a safety driver in California, Reuters has learned. If granted the permit, AutoX will become the second permit holder in the state.

AutoX would be able to test its self-driving vehicles using a remote operator, instead of having a driver physically present in the vehicle. The new permit is another step forward in the race to deploy the first commercial driverless delivery vans or robotaxis in the state.

"After three years of efforts, we believe that we have a technology that can go in deep, and safe for the public," AutoX Chief Operating Officer Jewel Li told Reuters, confirming it had applied for the permit.

The remote monitoring technology AutoX will use is known in the industry as "teleoperations", where a remote human operator can control the vehicle as though they were behind the wheel using a setup that resembles a racing video game. 

Using a low-latency 4G connection to the vehicle, a remote teleoperator can maneuver the vehicle using a live feed from the vehicle's forward or rear facing cameras. The remote operator can even be hundreds of miles away and can turn the steering wheel, switch on the turn signals or hazards or even drive safely to the side of the road if needed. 

The teleoperations provide an extra level of safety when testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. It also gives any passengers riding in a robotaxi a little piece of mind knowing that there is a human ready to take over if needed.

AutoX already holds a permit to test its vehicles with a driver present, joining around 60 other companies in California including BMW, Nvidia, Ford Motor Co and Tesla that were granted the autonomous vehicle test permit by the state's DMV. 

AutoX was founded in 2016 by former Princeton professor Jianxiong Xiao, a specialist in 3D learning, computer vision and robotics. The company's backers include Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and automaker Dongfeng Motor Group, one of China's "big-three" automakers.

The Hong-Kong-based company has raised $143 million so far in funding from investors, according to Reuters. AutoX is deploying 100 robotaxi vehicles in ten Chinese cities, including Shenzhen and Shanghai, as well as in San Jose, California, where it has its U.S. headquarters. 

AutoX is also developing a grocery delivery service as part of its autonomous driving development.

In August 2018, AutoX announced it was launching an autonomous grocery delivery pilot in San Jose. As part of the pilot service, users were able to order and receive fresh produce and other goods from grocery delivery company and have their order delivered by one of AutoX's neon green painted self-driving cars. The pilot was made available to customers in geo-fenced areas near the company's headquarters.

In June 2019, AutoX was granted a Class A Charter Party Certificate in California for a "autonomous vehicle passenger service pilot" which allows the company to carry passengers in its robotaxi pilot as long as there is a driver present. AutoX is also one of only four firms holding this separate permit. The others are autonomous driving startups Zoox and, as well as Waymo.

Current laws in California do not allow AutoX or any other companies to charge passengers for any types of experimental robotaxi services using autonomous vehicles as the state bans permit holders from collecting fares. However, AutoX, as well as Waymo, are pushing for California to change the rule.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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