Baidu announced on 8 August 2022 that it has secured the first permits in China to offer commercial fully driverless robotaxi services to the public on open roads.
Apollo Go, Baidu’s autonomous ride-hailing service, is now authorized to collect fares for robotaxi rides – completely without human drivers in the car – in Chongqing and Wuhan, two of China’s largest megacities.
Amid increasing regulatory approval of the expansion of autonomous vehicles (AVs), the permits reflect regulatory authorities’ strong recognition and trust in the strength of Baidu’s autonomous driving technology.
They also mark a key turning point for the future of mobility in China, leading to an eventual expansion of driverless ride-hailing services to paying users across the country.
The permits were granted to Baidu by government agencies in Wuhan and Chongqing’s Yongchuan District. Both cities have been pioneering new approaches to intelligent transportation in recent years, from developing infrastructure to updating new regulations for AVs.
Having received the permits, Baidu will begin to provide fully driverless robotaxi services in the designated areas in Wuhan from 9 am to 5 pm, and Chongqing from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, with five Apollo 5th gen robotaxis operating in each city.
The areas of service cover 13 square kilometers in the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone, and 30 square kilometers in Chongqing’s Yongchuan District.
First Driverless Permits in China for Autonomous Ride Hailing Services
Baidu received the first-ever permits in late April this year in China authorizing the company to provide driverless ride-hailing services to the public on open roads in Beijing.
This regulatory approval marks a significant milestone for the autonomous ride-hailing industry in China, indicating a regulatory openness to taking a further step toward a fully driverless mobility future.
With these permits issued by the head office of the Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD), ten autonomous vehicles without drivers behind the steering wheel will offer rides to passengers in a designated area of 60 square kilometers in Beijing.
These licensed cars will join an existing fleet provided by Apollo Go, Baidu’s autonomous ride-hailing service, in the capital city of China. Starting April 28, 2022, users will be able to hail a driverless ride using the Apollo Go mobile app in daytime from 10:00 to 16:00.
Currently, Baidu has the largest autonomous driving fleet in China. In expanding its driverless vehicle services, Baidu has worked to meet the unique technical challenges of Beijing’s complex traffic environment. The company plans to add 30 more such vehicles at a later stage, expanding its fleet to provide more convenient driverless services to the public.
Baidu has a proven track record of over 27 million kilometers (16 million miles) of road testing accumulated in the past 9 years with zero traffic accidents, including mileage recorded by driverless test cars in multiple cities across China as well as in California.
In September 2020, Baidu became the first company in Beijing to offer autonomous ride-hailing services. Starting in November of last year, Baidu has been charging fees for the Apollo Go autonomous services offered to the public under granted commercial permits, though safety operators are required in the driver’s seat.
Apollo Go has expanded to 9 cities in China since its first launch in 2020, including all first-tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou), and five other cities (Chongqing, Changsha, Cangzhou, Yangquan and Wuzhen). There have been 213,000 orders on Apollo Go in Q4 2021, making it the global leader by order volume.
Baidu showcases Fully Automated Driving and 5G Remote Driving Service
Baidu displayed Fully Automated Driving during Baidu World 2020 on 15 September 2020, the company’s annual technology conference that was held in cooperation with CCTV.
With Apollo’s new Fully Automated Driving capability, the AI system can independently drive without a safety driver inside the vehicle, a breakthrough that will accelerate the large-scale deployment of autonomous driving technology across China.
Zhenyu Li, Corporate Vice President of Baidu and General Manager of Intelligent Driving Group (IDG), demonstrated the technology in Beijing’s Shougang Park with CCTV anchor Xiaofeng Bao.
“The three core components of Apollo’s Fully Automated Driving technology are pre-installed and mass-produced vehicles, the ‘experienced AI driver’, and the 5G Remote Driving Service,” said Zhenyu Li during the demonstration.
With pre-installed and mass-produced vehicles as the foundation, the AI driving system is now capable of operating the vehicles independently, and the 5G Remote Driving Service allows remote human operators to intervene in case of emergencies.
Apollo’s leading technology in pre-installed and mass-produced vehicles is a key precondition for Fully Automated Driving.
In 2019, Baidu partnered with FAW Group and jointly developed Hongqi EV robotaxi, the first pre-installed and mass-produced robotaxi in China, which has since been deployed in unmanned driving tests in multiple cities including Beijing, Changsha, G
Compared with modified models, pre-installed and mass-produced vehicles better guarantee consistency and safety.
Apollo has also released its fifth-generation autonomous driving kit, and the first pre-installed and mass-produced vehicles that meet the requirements for fully automated operations will be launched soon.
With each new generation of Apollo vehicles, the cost will be halved while performance will increase by tenfold, said Zhenyu Li.
The “experienced AI driver” refers to the capacity of the AI system to control the vehicle independent of a human driver. Apollo has completed over six million kilometers of road testing with a record low of zero accidents.
Having carried over 100,000 passengers across 27 cities around the world, Apollo’s “experienced AI driver” is well-trained. It is capable of handling various technological challenges of unmanned driving and solving the overwhelming majority of possible issues on the road.
The 5G Remote Driving Service is an indispensable complement to the “experienced AI driver” and allows human operators to remotely access vehicles in the case of exceptional emergencies.
Powered by smart transportation systems, vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies, and the high bandwidth and response speed of 5G networks, the 5G Remote Driving Service is engaged instantaneously to provide immediate assistance from remote human operators when the user or the system switches to parallel driving mode.
All remote human operators have completed over 1,000 hours of cloud-based driving training without any accidents, so they can ensure the safety of passengers and pedestrians under the non-autonomous driving mode.
As the “experienced AI driver” can handle most road conditions, extreme occasions that require human intervention are rare. Hence, one remote human operator will be able to manage multiple vehicles simultaneously, largely increasing efficiency compared to the traditional one operator per vehicle model.
With these advancements, unmanned driving will create a new ecosystem of shared transportation, and the autonomous driving industry will enter the stage of full commercialization in 2025, said Robin Li, Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Baidu.
Apollo also announced new product and technological developments at the conference.
Vehicle manufacturer Weltmeister will launch a new model incorporating Apollo’s valet parking in 2021, which will be the first in China to be equipped with L4 autonomous valet parking technology.
It will be able to identify vacant parking slots in multistory parking garages and allow people to use the autonomous-parking and smart summons functions with one simple click.
In addition, DuerOS for Apollo with smart voice-interaction has been installed on over one million smart vehicles.
DuerOS for Apollo is partnering with over 60 major automotive brands and covers more than 500 vehicle models on the market.
According to IHS Markit’s latest “Report on Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) Development Trends in the Chinese Market”, DuerOS for Apollo is the world’s most installed system for CAV.
The Apollo smart transportation solution “ACE Transportation Engine” has been put in use in nearly 20 cities in China.
Robin Li estimates that by 2025 major Chinese cities will no longer need to limit vehicle purchases and usage, and by 2030 most traffic congestion issues can be solved by higher transportation efficiency.
Smart transportation infrastructure based on V2X technologies promises to improve traffic efficiency by 15% to 30% and boost the contribution to GDP by 2.4% to 4.8% in absolute value.
During the smart transportation sub-forum at Baidu World 2020, Baidu launched Apollo 6.0, the latest version of its open platform, adding multiple cloud services to make it more accessible for developers.
The Apollo open platform has now released 600,000 lines of open source code, gathering 45,000 developers and 210 ecosystem partners globally.