The world’s push toward autonomous vehicles is recording success as new technologies fill the gaps that have stymied its progress for long.
On Thursday, AutoX, an Alibaba backed startup announced the release of robotaxi driverless taxis in Shenzhen China. It is the first major breakthrough in using autonomous vehicles for public transport in China.
AutoX was founded in 2016 by Jianxiong Xiao, a former assistant lecturer at Princeton. The Shenzhen-based startup focuses on making the technology for self-driving vehicles, and it is in partnership with carmaker Fiat Chrysler to develop and roll out its robottaxis.
Like in the US and every other country experimenting with driverless cars, regulators in China had been warily giving approvals to companies operating automated vehicles. Before now, companies operating driverless vehicles in China faced strict rules, including having a driver inside the vehicles as a safety measure.
But that is where AutoX breaks the jinx. The company was able to get the authorities to approve the vehicles without backup drivers or any remote operators for its local fleet of 25 cars, it said. And the government unlike before is not restricting where in the city the AutoX operates.
The company said it would focus on the downturn area of the city as it pushes to satisfy the curiosity of both the government and the public through the tests.
“It’s a dream. After working so hard for many years, we’ve finally reached the point that the technology is mature enough, that we feel confident by ourselves, to really remove the safety driver,” AutoX CEO Xiao said in an interview.
AutoX said to beat the bottlenecks that had made it difficult for regulators to approve complete autonomous vehicles, it has to improve the technology to enable the vehicles to navigate around humans and other objects sensitively.
“The traffic scenarios are much more challenging,” Xiao said. “For our AI, we had to do a lot of work to adapt to the local Chinese way of driving.”
Xiao attributed the success to improved software and hardware, and said regulators were impressed by the AI software.
“We have over 100 vehicles driving every day on the road in China to capture data. The AI software is now better,” Xiao said, adding that “From a technical point of view, the car is ready,” and “it is very crucial to have this car, otherwise we cannot go driverless.”
The race to develop trusted automated vehicles has heated up in the past few years. In October 2020, Waymo LLC, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, expanded its driverless cars services to the public, and it became the only self-driving commercial service that operates without safety backup drivers in the vehicle.
Waymo has partnered with vehicle manufacturers, including Daimler AG, Nissan-Renault, Fiat Chrysler, Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo, to develop the technology for delivery vans and class 8 tractor-trailers for delivery and logistics.
The company made a 2017 projection in 2012, which was adjusted to 2020, to deliver reliable commercial self-driving vehicles – and it’s living up to it.
Tesla is another automaker that has jumped on the robotaxi idea. The company’s founder and CEO Elon Musk, had in 2019 set a target of 2020 for a possible ride-hailing driverless Tesla cars. Although the company did not meet the projection, it added fame to the quest for autonomous vehicles.
AutoX had in the summer obtained approval to carry out completely autonomous tests on public roads in parts of San Jose, California, according to CNN.
The report said there has been rising domestic autonomous vehicle competition in China, as more driverless vehicles are being opened to the public.
In June, Didi, China’s biggest ride-hailing firm, started its own trial of autonomous vehicles in Shanghai, offering the public free rides, although not without a safety backup driver.
Baidu was also reported to be offering public rides in its driverless vehicles in some districts of Beijing.
But AutoX has an edge, with over 100 robotaxis deployed in five Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Wuhan, the company is the only one that has secured the right to offer autonomous ride services without backup drivers in China. Xiao said regulators will determine if the same rule will apply in other cities as the company aims to expand to more than 10 local cities.
AutoX vehicles are available to the public in Shanghai, and commuters can hail them through Alibaba’s Autonavi app, a Chinese mapping app.
The domestic competition for driverless vehicles in China, also underscores automakers’ push to grab a share of the automobile industry while it’s still ripe. The Chinese market has been leading globally when it comes to automobiles, and its market is projected to have $1.1 trillion value by 2040.