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Baidu to Open China's First Public Commercial Robotaxi Service Without Safety Drivers on May 2

Baidu to Open China's First Public Commercial Robotaxi Service Without Safety Drivers on May 2

Author: Eric Walz   

China's technology giant Baidu Inc. is launching the first commercial robotaxi service in the country on May 2 after months of successful testing using safety drivers. Beginning next week,  members of the public can hail one of Baidu's driverless vehicles without a safety driver behind the wheel.

Baidu's AI-powered autonomous driving system can operate the vehicle without human intervention, a breakthrough that Baidu says will help accelerate the large-scale deployment of autonomous driving technology across China. 

Baidu's autonomous ride-hailing service is called "Apollo Go" and is named after the company's Apollo open autonomous driving platform. The company is leading the development of robotaxis in China with the higher number of licensed vehicles deployed as well as the highest number of miles driven in testing. 

The Apollo Go service will first be launched in Beijing's Shougang Park, which is one of the venues for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. During the upcoming Winter Olympics, the Apollo robotaxis will be available to provide shuttle services for athletes and staff. 

Riders hail one of the autonomous SUVs, which are built by Chinese automaker FAW, using Baidu's Apollo Go App. Baidu said that users can also locate a FAW Hongqi robotaxi in the vicinity and hail a driverless ride by themselves.

Since there are no drivers onboard to make eye contact like traditional ride-hailing services, Baidu offers virtual reality navigation and remote car honking can help users to identify the location of the robotaxi. 

Once a driver approaches the vehicle, they scan a QR code for identity verification to unlock the doors. Due to health concerns, riders will also need to scan an additional health code on the vehicle for pandemic prevention purposes. 

After the customer gets in the vehicle and clicks on the "Start the Journey" button, the system does a quick safety check to make sure seat belts are fastened and the doors are securely shut. The trip will not begin until all the passenger safety protocol checks are completed.

The autonomous vehicles will be backed up using a 5G-powered "Remote Driving Service, which Baidu also developed for Apollo Go. It allows a human operator to take over control of the vehicle remotely in the event the vehicle encounters any unexpected obstacles during the trip, such as a stalled vehicle or lane closure due to construction. 

The remote operator can control the steering, braking and acceleration and is provided real-time camera feeds from the vehicle as if they were behind the wheel.

The Remote Driving Service also provides additional peace of mind for passengers that may be hesitant about riding in a completely driverless vehicle. Knowing that a human can take control if needed can help reduce any anxiety for passengers.

Users_hailing_a_fully_driverless_robotaxi_Apollo_Go_App.jpeg

Customers can summon a driverless taxi using the Apollo Go smartphone app.

Baidu's Apollo Go service is the first step for widespread commercialization of robotaxis, which can help improve road safety and reduce traffic congestion. The company currently has 14 pick-up and drop-off stations in Beijing, which are approved and opened to the public.

The Apollo Go service will eventually expand outside to around 100 pick-up and drop-off stations throughout Beijing, covering residential and business areas in Yizhuang, Haidian, and Shunyi districts in the near future. With the planned expansion, Baidu will be the only company with robotaxi pilot operations in multiple cities across China.

"Introducing unmanned services is an indispensable stage for the commercialization of autonomous driving. Today, we are opening the fully driverless robotaxi services in Beijing for the public, which we achieved only after conducting countless scalable driverless tests in many cities over a long period of time," said Yunpeng Wang, vice president and general manager of autonomous driving technology at Baidu.

Baidu began the autonomous driving tests for Apollo Go last October with trial operations in Yizhuang, Haidian and Shunyi in Beijing. The company has been investing in autonomous driving for the last eight years, and has established a fleet of 500 autonomous vehicles for road testing. Baidu recently announced the completion of over 10 million kilometers of road testing with its autonomous vehicles.

Now Baidu Apollo is moving forward to a new stage of scalable commercialized operations with the launch of the fully driverless robotaxi services in the capital city of Beijing. This first launch will serve as a starting point to expand the Apollo Go service to other first-tier Chinese cities. 

Baidu's Apollo autonomous driving platform was designed to foster innovation and speed up the development of autonomous driving and related technologies through collaboration with industry partners. 

Since launching in 2017, Apollo's autonomous development work has grown significantly. Baidu is working with nearly 200 industry partners as part of the open Apollo project, including automakers BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen, and hardware manufacturers Intel and Nvidia.

In March, Baidu announced plans to build smart electric vehicles with a new EV company with Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group (Geely), the parent company of Swedish automaker Volvo Cars. Geely is one of China's best-selling automotive brands and will contribute its expertise in automobile design and manufacturing at scale.

Earlier this week, leading global consulting firm Guidehouse named Baidu as one of the top ten autonomous driving developers in the world. Others include Waymo, which spun out of Google's self-driving car project, and Cruise, the autonomous driving unit of automaker General Motors.

To date, Baidu has been granted 2,900 patents for intelligent driving and 221 road test licenses, 179 of which are for testing self-driving vehicles that carry passengers.

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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