Cabs without a driver are expanding in China

China’s response to search engine giant Google is paving the way for self-driving cars in the world’s largest electric vehicle market.

Baidu Inc.’s Apollo program, which allows customers to use and drive fully autonomous robotic taxis, has made more than 1.4 million public transit trips and is expanding a network that already covers tens of square miles in 10 key cities, including Wuhan. and Chongqing. The company wants to have the largest autonomous service area in the world by next year, an ambitious goal given it needs to complete General Motors Co.’s rapidly expanding Cruise robotic taxi division. and Californian Waymo. Baidu is also challenging competitors in China such as WeRide and

The pace of development is on display in the company’s Yizhuang showroom, where an early autonomous model — a boxy red compact 4×4 with steel beams for the camera and lidar sensors — contrasts with a sleek white SUV slated for release next year. year. Nearby is Willy Wonka’s factory, floor-to-ceiling wallpapered with QR codes used to train and test vehicle systems and equipment.

See what it’s like Here

While the technology behind the cars is breathtaking, driving them around Beijing is surprisingly standard. Using the green-and-white Baidu app to book a trip on a recent afternoon, the self-driving taxi arrived within minutes and the fare, including the promotional discount, was low: 4 yuan (65 cents) for a 10-minute ride.

The company’s robot taxi fleet uses the Arcfox aT production model, which is equipped with many sensors. The vehicle diligently respects the speed limit, joins traffic early and turns smoothly on the wide, mostly empty streets surrounding its facility. When a cyclist abruptly leaves the pavement, the robotic taxi applies the brakes until he is far away.

Because Baidu currently uses conventional models designed for human drivers, riding in the back seat does evoke the frightening vision of a steering wheel spinning like it’s being turned by a ghost. The rear monitors amplify the effect by displaying the same images that the car interprets – pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles, buses and trains, all presented in the form of figures that are more like elements of the Monopoly game. Another 10 minutes of city driving is just as smooth, quiet and drama-free.

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However, there is a potential hurdle ahead for Chinese operators. In October, the US imposed stricter controls on exports to the country of certain chips and chip-making equipment to prevent the country from developing capabilities that could pose a military threat, such as supercomputing and artificial intelligence.
“For the part of our business that needs advanced chips, we already have enough inventory to support our business in the near term,” said Robin Li, Baidu’s president, during an earnings call last month.

For now, Baidu, which is increasingly shifting its focus to artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles after its core ad revenue dwindled, sees robot taxis as the best opportunity in the short term. It is gearing up to ramp up production of the Apollo range and has contracts with cities like Guangzhou to build digital infrastructure for city streets. Starting in 2024, investors can also expect “significant returns” from Baidu’s automotive solutions business, which mainly sells driving assistance software, Li said.

This could affect the autonomous driving industry, which trains its artificial intelligence on cloud platforms that rely on advanced chips that are acted upon by controls, said Bao Linghao, an analyst at Trivium China Ltd. If Chinese companies limit their computing power, it could end up preventing Baidu and local competitors from keeping pace with Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, which already leads in vehicle mileage. “In the long term, this will become a big problem,” Bao said. “If China’s AI computing power is limited, it will put Chinese AI companies at a disadvantage on the starting line.”

Baidu, which has nearly tripled the road test of its key domestic rivals, sees limited immediate impact. Ultimately, the firm expects China’s auto sector to become less dependent on imports.

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