October 5, 2022


SINGAPORE—China has taken a notable regulatory step in the driverless taxi sector, with two cities giving Baidu Inc.

BIDU -1.61%

approval to perform horse riding services without a driver or person supervising safety in the vehicle.

The Chinese search engine giant, which already has self-driving taxis, plans to add five driverless cars each in the cities of Wuhan and Chongqing, it said. These vehicles will operate in designated areas of these cities during the day, when there tends to be more traffic on the road, the company said. The approvals also allow Baidu to charge users for the rides, he said.

China, seeking to catch up with the US in autonomous driving, is increasingly active in establishing regulations to allow self-driving vehicles on public roads. Establishing such a regulatory framework helps clarify rules and responsibilities and opens avenues for companies to operate businesses.

This month, the southern metropolis of Shenzhen began implementing new rules that say unmanned driverless cars can only be driven in designated areas and that service operators of such cars will be held liable in the event of traffic accidents.

The issuance of licenses to Baidu underscores that Chinese regulators have established basic rules to govern a new business sector, said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s information driving division. More than a dozen cities in China have set up pilot areas to test driverless vehicles on public roads since authorities began approving such tests in 2020.

In the US, General Motors Co.’s Cruise LLC. In June, it was granted permission to charge for self-driving nighttime rides in San Francisco, while Waymo LLC, an Alphabet Inc.

unit, earlier this year began operating cars without human control, also in San Francisco. Waymo’s rides are free and only available to Waymo staff.

In Wuhan, central China, Baidu will operate in a designated area of ​​about 5 square miles, while in the southwestern city of Chongqing, in an area of ​​about 12 square miles, the company said.

Driverless robotaxis have already been approved to run in some areas of Beijing, but a security person is required to sit next to the driver’s seat. Last month, Baidu and Pony.ai, a rival backed by Toyota Motor Corp.

obtained commercial licenses for such services there.

Beijing-based Baidu plans to double the size of its robotaxi fleet in China to more than 600 cars by the October-December quarter, Mr. Wei said. For every two robotaxis in service, Baidu has a staff member monitoring the vehicles remotely, he said.

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 but wouldn’t use it with his family right away. He believes in the safety of autonomous vehicles, he said, but added, “I would be conservative with the elderly and children.”

Write to Raffaele Huang at raffaele.huang@wsj.com

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