Baidu launches paid Robotaxi service in China without an employee on board

Baidu
BIDU
has announced that it has received permits to operate a paid Robotaxi service in China, without a human safety driver on board the vehicle. In the past, they have operated with human operators either behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. Baidu says it will immediately start operations in Chongqing and Wuhan, two large cities in central China. They have previously operated, with the passenger seat operator in some cases, in several eastern Chinese cities. The service will only be from about 9 to 5, in a 13 square kilometer region in Wuhan and a 30 square kilometer region in the Yongchuan district of Chongqing. The Wuhan region is a special area with 321 km of approved roads, of which 106 km have special 5G that allows remote monitoring with low latency and even allows remote driving of the vehicles.

What is remarkable about this is the removal of the human from the car. For the outside public, it is very difficult to measure the progress of a robocar team. Everyone publishes very nice videos of their cars driving and solving various problems. The problem is that you can make such a video at almost any level of progress, if you choose what you show. As such, we must measure the teams by what risks they are willing to take and how many people they will allow to see all facets of the operation.

The decision to go without people in the vehicle means there was a big presentation from the team to the board where they showed the vehicle was good enough to be released in this way, with members of the public and no one to grab the wheel or hit the emergency stop if a problem occurs. That tells us the team made a compelling case, and the quality is good — or maybe the team is ruthless, which we’ll soon find out. Baidu claims 32 million km of operations to date. Baidu states that while it is remote monitoring, they have about 2-3 vehicles per remote screen, so it is not a 1:1 ratio.

The vehicles must make pick-ups/drop-offs at designated stops, rather than anywhere there is a free curb like human drivers do. “PuDo” is its own problem that not all teams have solved yet. (Cruise got in trouble for just doing PuDo on the street without leaving, but at night this is common for taxis.)

The second measure of the team’s own self-assessment of how far it is on its way is whether they want to let the public see random rides. Again, it is not that difficult to take a visiting member of the press on a pre-planned and well-tested route. Allowing members of the public to ride anywhere, anytime shows you’re confident this will work. Some teams require riders to sign NDAs and not make videos. More confident teams have allowed anyone to release these videos. Again, this says the company’s own testing has told them their vehicle won’t embarrass them in the videos. Baidu says that riders can create and publish videos of their rides, so they will be interesting to watch.

Of course, it is not enough to allow this. Tesla
TSLA
is actually the most open of all, and has allowed over 100,000 of their customers to try out their prototype driving system, including myself. Of course, it does not allow unattended operation. After allowing this, Tesla has revealed that their system is extremely low quality and in dire need of oversight, so it doesn’t get high marks for quality, but it does get high marks for letting us see the quality. Those who don’t let us see the quality can be assumed to be even worse than Tesla.

To a small extent, this also means that they have convinced regulators of this, but the truth is that the regulators are not really in a position to assess the quality of a robocar. Even the teams are figuring out exactly how to do it, but they’re the only ones who have much of a clue. What they dare to do shows what their own evaluations have said.

In the US, Waymo has been operating vehicles in Arizona without a supervising driver for several years now. Recently, Cruise began such operations at night in a limited area in downtown SF, and Waymo also began operations there at all hours, but has not begun unmanned service.

The ability to demand money is not a big step, although it has often been high. No one is trying to run these services as a business yet. By charging money, they can see how the public reacts to the service when they have to pay for it, and experiment with other types of charging. Currently, most services only charge the same or slightly less than Uber
UBER
. A robotaxi service will ultimately have to be a bit smaller than Uber, and probably done with a completely different pricing structure that isn’t just a price per mile. Baidu Apollo taxi service is 16 yuan plus 2.8 yuan/km, comparable to human-driven services in some areas of China.

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