By Raffaele Huang
SINGAPORE–Baidu Inc. has received approval from two Chinese cities to charge passengers for its ride-hailing service operated without a driver or safety person in the vehicle, the search-engine giant said Monday.
Baidu, the first Chinese company to obtain such permits, will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a designated 13 square-kilometer area (five square-mile area) in Wuhan and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in a 30 square-kilometer area in Chongqing, it said in a statement.
“We have come to the ultimate scenario that the industry has been longing for,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s intelligence driving division.
Autonomous-driving companies around the world are seeking to turn their technologies into a business that is available to the public and start drawing their plans for profits. General Motors Co.’s Cruise LLC in June received a permit to charge for fully driverless rides at night from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in San Francisco. In March, Alphabet Inc. unit and Google’s sister company Waymo LCC started sending cars without any human control, also in San Francisco. Those rides are free and only available to its staff.
Chinese players have been catching up with U.S. forerunners since local authorities started allowing driverless tests in 2020. More than a dozen cities in China have set up pilot areas for companies to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Chinese regulators, while keen to take a lead in cutting-edge technology, have been cautious about allowing companies to charge the public for humanless ride-hailing services, mainly out of safety concerns.
Issuing the permit highlights that Chinese regulators are easing policy restrictions as they have established some fundamental rules to govern the new business, said Mr. Wei.
Last month, Baidu and Pony.ai, a rival backed by Toyota Motor Corp., got permits to charge passengers for their robotaxi service without having humans in the driving seat on public roads in a 60 square-kilometer area in Beijing. But there, they are still required to have a safety person next to the driving seat.
Some passengers may be hesitant to board a self-driving car without other humans. Jin Jianbing, an e-commerce worker in Beijing who has been on Baidu robotaxi rides, said he would be excited to try the new service once available, but wouldn’t use it when traveling with his family.
The Beijing-based company plans to double the size of its robotaxi fleet in China to more than 600 cars in the October-December quarter, Baidu’s Mr. Wei said. It is charging passengers in five Chinese cities, he added. Currently, for every two robotaxis in service, Baidu has one staffer monitor the vehicles remotely, he said.
Baidu’s new service will use its electric sport-utility vehicle Apollo Moon, which cost around $71,000, the company said. It plans to first add five cars in each of the two cities for the new service, it said.
The company last month unveiled a car with a detachable steering wheel that it planned to use for robotaxi service in 2023. The future model, which will cost half of Apollo Moon, will help Baidu achieve break-even faster, Mr. Wei said.
China’s first set of regulations on autonomous driving came into effect on Aug. 1 in the southern metropolis Shenzhen. The city requires that fully-driverless cars can only run in designated areas and the service operators of such cars will be held responsible for any traffic accidents and violations.
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