Baidu starts paid robotaxi service in China with no employee on board

announced that they have received permits to operate a paid Robotaxi service in China, with no human safety driver on board the vehicle. Previously, they worked with human operators behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. Baidu says they will start immediately in Chongqing and Wuhan, two major cities in central China. They previously operated, in some cases with the passenger seat operator, 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 Chongqing’s Yongchuan district. The Wuhan region is a special area with 321 km of approved roads, of which 106 km have dedicated 5G, which enables low-latency remote monitoring and even remote control of the vehicles.

What is striking is the removal of the person from the car. It is very difficult for the outside audience to measure the progress of a robocar team. Everyone is posting really nice videos of their cars going for rides and solving various problems. The problem is that you can make such a video at almost any level of progress, as long as you choose what to show. That’s why we need to measure teams by the risks they’re willing to take and how many people they’ll show all facets of the operation.

The decision to go in the vehicle without a person meant that the team gave a big presentation to the board where they showed the vehicle was good enough to let go this way, with members of the public and no one around. grab the steering wheel or hit an emergency stop if a problem occurs. That tells us the team has made a convincing case and the quality is good – or maybe the team is reckless, which we’ll find out soon enough. Baidu claims 32 million km of operations to date. Baidu states that while there is remote monitoring, they have about 2-3 vehicles per remote monitor, so it’s not a 1:1 ratio.

The vehicles should pick up/drop off at designated stops, rather than anywhere with a free curb as human drivers do. “PuDo” is its own problem that not all teams have solved yet. (Cruise got into trouble for just doing PuDo on the street without taking off, although this is common for taxis at night.)

The other measure of the team’s self-assessment of how far along they are is whether they will show the public random rides. Again, it’s not that hard to take a guest member of the press on a pre-planned and well-tested route. Letting audience members ride anywhere, anytime shows that you’re confident this will work. Some teams require the riders to sign NDAs and not make videos. More confident teams have allowed everyone to release these videos. Again, this says the company’s own testing has told them that their vehicle will not embarrass them in the videos. Baidu says riders are allowed to create and publish videos of their rides, so those will be interesting to watch.

It is of course not enough to allow this. Tesla
is actually the most open of them all, and has allowed over 100,000 of their customers to try out their prototype drive system, including myself. Of course, it doesn’t allow unattended operation. Tesla has allowed this and revealed that their system is extremely low quality and badly in need of oversight, so it doesn’t get high marks for quality, but it gets high marks to show us the quality. Those who don’t want to show us the quality can be assumed to be even worse than Tesla.

To a lesser 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 judge the quality of a robocar. Even the teams are figuring out exactly how to do that, but they’re the only ones with a lot of ideas. What they dare to do shows what their own evaluations have said.

In the US, Waymo has had unsupervised driver-operated vehicles in Arizona for several years now. More recently, Cruise began such operations at night in a limited area of ​​downtown SF, and Waymo also began operating at all hours there, but has not begun fully unmanned service.

The ability to charge money is not a big step, although it is often highly touted. No one is trying to run these services as a business until now. By charging money, they can see how the public reacts to the service when they have to pay for it, and they can experiment with other forms of charging. Right now most services just charge similar to or slightly less than Uber
. A robotic taxi service should end up being a lot less than Uber, and probably done with an entirely different pricing structure that isn’t just a price per mile. Baidu Apollo taxi service costs 16 yuan plus 2.8 yuan/km, comparable to human-powered services in some parts of China.

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