By Kevin Krolicki
(Reuters) – Baidu Inc and Toyota Motor Corp-backed startup Pony. ai said on Friday they been granted the first licences to test fully autonomous vehicles without safety operators as a backup in Beijing.
Baidu and Pony.ai said they would begin testing 10 driverless vehicles each in a technology park developed by the Beijing government as a step towards commercial robotaxi services in China’s capital.
Beijing-headquartered Baidu, which generates most of its revenue from its internet search engine, has focused on self-driving technologies over the last five years as it looks to diversify.
It started to charge fees for its robotaxi service Apollo Go last year. It has predicted a robotaxi ride would eventually cost about half as much as one in a commercial car with a driver. The company said it would add another 200 robotaxis to its network across China in the coming year.
Apollo Go, which operates in Wuhan and Chongqing without a safety driver, delivered a total of 1.4 million driverless rides by end of the third quarter, Baidu has said.
Rival Pony.ai, which has operations in China and the United States, has been testing autonomous drive systems in Guangzhou, where it operates a taxi service. It is also testing autonomous drive vehicles in California and Arizona, where it employs safety drivers in the cars as a precaution.
While Chinese companies are pushing for self-driving cars, automakers outside China have retreated from the ambitious rollout schedule predicted a few years ago and regulatory roadblocks have appeared.
Tesla’s “Full Self Driving” system requires a human behind the wheel ready to take control, three years after CEO Elon Musk predicted the company was on track to deliver a fleet of a million robotaxis.
Tesla has been under criminal investigation in the United States over claims that the company’s electric vehicles can drive themselves.
Cruise, General Motors Co’s robotaxi unit, has said it plans to add thousands of autonomous vehicles in the coming year and to expand its service across San Francisco and other U.S. cities.
U.S. auto safety regulators said earlier this month they had opened a safety investigation into the autonomous driving system used by Cruise after incidents where the vehicles braked inappropriately or became immobilised.
In October, Ford Motor Co and Volkswagen AG shut down their shared self-driving startup, Argo AI, after concluding that the mass deployment of a commercial autonomous drive system would take more time and money than the companies predicted when they joined forces in 2019.
In March, Pony.ai agreed to repair a version of its autonomous driving software in the United States after an informal inquiry by the National Highway Traffic Safety concluded a defect had caused a test vehicle to crash into a traffic median in California.