Two Chinese cities approve Baidu’s driverless driverless taxis


SINGAPORE — China has taken a remarkable regulatory step on self-driving taxis, with two cities Baidu Inc.

BIDU -1.61%

approval to operate ride-hailing services without a driver or person supervising safety in the vehicle.

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

China, which is trying to catch up with the US on autonomous driving, has become increasingly active in drafting regulations that allow self-driving vehicles on public roads. Establishing such a regulatory framework helps clarify rules and responsibilities and opens avenues for companies to do business.

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

The licensing of Baidu highlights that Chinese regulators have established ground rules to govern a new business area, said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s intelligence division. More than a dozen cities in China have set up pilot areas for testing driverless vehicles on public roads since authorities began to approve such tests in 2020.

In the US, Cruise LLC of General Motors Co. was licensed in June to charge fully self-driving rides in San Francisco at night, while Waymo LLC, a Inc.

unit, started driving cars without any human control, including in San Francisco earlier this year. Waymo rides are free and available to staff only.

In Wuhan, in central China, Baidu will operate its services 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 has already been approved for use in certain parts of Beijing, but a security person must 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.

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. Whey. For every two robot axes in use, Baidu has one staffer who monitors the vehicles remotely, he said.

Jin Jianbing, an e-commerce worker in Beijing who has been on Baidu robotic taxi rides, said he’d be excited to try the new service, but won’t be using 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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