Baidu kicks off robotaxi business, after Beijing city’s fare approval

Table of Contents How much will it cost?Robotaxis race for U.S., China approvalBaidu’s expansion plansRead more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro BEIJING — Baidu can start collecting robotaxi fares in a part of Beijing from Thursday, the Chinese tech giant told CNBC this week, marking a major step toward […]

BEIJING — Baidu can start collecting robotaxi fares in a part of Beijing from Thursday, the Chinese tech giant told CNBC this week, marking a major step toward building its driverless taxi business.

The regulatory approval to support robotaxis in China comes as local governments in the U.S. have been progressing in a similar direction.

However, Beijing city’s move carries additional weight.

Approval from China’s capital marks the first time such a large city in the country has allowed companies to charge the public for robotaxi rides.

It sets the stage for other cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to do the same, Wei Dong, vice president and chief security operation officer, at Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

He expects those cities to act later this year or early next year.

How much will it cost?

Effective Thursday, Baidu’s Apollo unit that runs the robotaxi business can collect fares from passengers taking one of 67 self-driving cars in Beijing’s suburban district of Yizhuang.

While the company did not disclose exact pricing, it said fares would be comparable with the premium level ride-hailing charges available through apps like Didi, which can cost twice as much as ordinary rides.

A safety staff member gets in a self-driving robotaxi on October 13, 2020, in Beijing, China, a few days after Baidu launched trial operations of its Apollo Robotaxi.

Zhao Jing | Visual China Group | Getty Images

Baidu has offered free robotaxi rides in Yizhuang since October 2020. As of Wednesday, the robotaxi app, branded “Luobo Kuaipao,” showed a sample fare of 34 yuan ($5.31) for a 3-kilometer ride (1.86 miles) from a Sam’s Club in Yizhuang to a nearby subway station.

The same route costs about 14 yuan ($2.19) through Didi’s basic express car service. Didi’s sample premium level fare for the same route is 27 yuan.

So far, the novelty of a free, self-driving taxi has drawn a number of regular users in Yizhuang. Wei said more than 20,000 users each take at least 10 rides a month. It’s unclear how many will keep using the service when they have to pay for it, but Wei aims to get an additional 100 robotaxi cars verified each year.

Robotaxis race for U.S., China approval

On Nov. 16, Alibaba-backed autonomous driving company AutoX claimed its fully driverless robotaxis now operate in the largest single region in China — 168 square kilometers (65 square miles) in the Pingshan District of the southern city of Shenzhen. AutoX said it began in January to allow the public to sign up for robotaxi rides. It was not immediately clear whether there was a cost to ride.

Baidu’s permit for commercial autonomous vehicle operations covers a 60 square kilometer area, including a town called Yizhuang that’s home to many businesses such as JD.com’s headquarters. The region is about half an hour’s drive south of central Beijing.

The Beijing city government has also made Yizhuang a testing site for autonomous driving by allowing companies to trial their projects there. These include JD’s unmanned delivery vehicles and Baidu’s robotaxi cars.

Baidu’s expansion plans

Read more about electric vehicles from CNBC Pro

On the consumer front, Wei said Apollo would focus on ways to give the user an experience beyond just a mode of transport — such as displaying the streets of Beijing from 20 years ago on the car windows, instead of the current street view.

Another strategy lies in finding ways to utilize the robotaxi for non-travel functions, such as a space for medical treatment or a public library, he said.

Although Apollo is just a small part of Baidu, its development falls in line with the CEO’s attempts to convince investors the broader company’s future lies in artificial intelligence and related areas such as autonomous driving.

The company’s fastest area of revenue growth in the third quarter was in “non-online marketing revenue,” up 76% from a year ago to 5.2 billion yuan ($806 million). Baidu attributed the growth to demand for cloud computing and its other AI businesses.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/11/25/baidu-kicks-off-robotaxi-business-after-beijing-citys-fare-approval.html

Dong Anker

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