Technicians monitor self-driving taxis developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. in Beijing on June 14, 2022

Wi th A self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. is rolling down the streets of Beijing when the sensor finds a corner of a delivery cart protruding into the lane.

The taxi stops half the length of the car. A recorded voice saying “I’m sorry” tells the passengers. As the taxi moves around the cart, the handle will rotate automatically. Baidu technicians are watching from the passenger seat.

Baidu is China’s hottest competitor in billion-dollar competition with rival self-driving car developers such as Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo and General Motors Co.’s Cruise.

Baidu and rival Pony.ai obtained their first license in China in April and drove a taxi with no one in the driver’s seat but a safety supervisor. This is 18 months after Waymo launched its self-driving ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona in October 2020.

Founded in 2000 as a search engine operator, Baidu has expanded into artificial intelligence, processor chips and other technologies. Successful self-driving cars will make driving cheaper, easier, and safer.

“We believe that the primary goal of autonomous driving is to reduce man-made road accidents,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group.

Autonomous driving is one of a series of emerging technologies ranging from artificial intelligence to renewable energy, and Chinese companies are investing billions of dollars to create it, prompted by the ruling Communist Party. ..

Beijing wants to join the ranks of technology and join the United States, Europe and Japan to build its prosperity and global influence. Not only does it have the potential for new inventions, but it also fuels tensions between Washington and its allies, who see China as a strategic challenger.

Baidu’s Apollo self-driving platform was launched in 2017, and the Apollo Go self-driving taxi service was launched three years later.

Driver-driven taxi services began in 2020 and expanded to Beijing, Shanghai and eight other cities. Apollo Go said it provided 213,000 rides in the last quarter of last year, making it one of the busiest self-driving taxi services in the world.

For vehicles with no driver and supervisor in the passenger seat, Apollo Go started in an area of ​​60 square kilometers in the industrial area of ​​the southeastern suburbs of Beijing, with wide streets and few bicycles and pedestrians. ..

“It’s very convenient,” said 43-year-old Zhao Hui, who is taking a Baidu taxi in Yizhuang.

Zhao said he “may feel a little safer” than a human driver. “Sometimes there are small things, sometimes they don’t notice. They can find them and stop them.”

Other developers include Shenzhen’s Deeproute.ai and AutoX. Founded in 2016 and backed by venture capital, Pony.ai conducts road testing of self-driving cars and semi-trailer trucks.

Owen Chen of S & P Global Mobility states that the industry’s plans are “very aggressive in delivering Robotaxi to consumers.”

Automaker Geely, owner of Volvo Car, Geely, Lotus and Polestar, has announced plans for satellite-linked self-driving cars. Network equipment manufacturer Huawei Technologies Ltd. is working on self-driving mining and industrial vehicles.

The ruling party is promoting automation that supports economic growth by increasing the productivity of the shrinking and aging workforce. China’s working-age population has fallen by 5% from its 2011 peak and is projected to decline further.

“People are very expensive,” Wei said. “If this public service is empty, costs can drop rapidly.”

Pete Kelly, Managing Director of GlobalDataPlc’s Automotive Division, said China is “competitive at this point” as to whether it can lead the world’s industry.

“But the decision-making and deployment methods in China made it easy for them to do this,” Kelly said.

McKinsey & Co. Estimates the potential market for self-driving taxis, buses, trucks and other equipment and software in China in 2019 at trillions of dollars.

Early products are unlikely to pay off development costs, Kelly said, but could be a “loss leader” selling other services.

Baidu states that it already sells navigation and other technologies to automakers. Chairman Robin Li said in a conference call with reporters on May 26 that he forecasts total sales of 10 billion yuan ($ 1.5 billion) based on the agreement so far.

The company said it spent a total of 24.9 billion yuan ($ 3.9 billion) on research and development last year, but did not say how much of it was spent on self-driving cars. Baidu reported last year’s revenue of 124.5 billion yuan ($ 19.5 billion) and a profit of 10.2 billion yuan ($ 1.7 billion).

Baidu and its most advanced rivals have reached level 4 of the industry among the five possible technical levels. This means that the system can operate without a driver, but the detailed map needs to be preloaded. It limits the area they can manipulate.

Low levels of technology range from cruise control, a feature that has been available for decades, to level 3 that enables hands-free highway driving. Self-driving robot carts are already widely used in factories, warehouses and other tightly controlled environments.

When self-driving taxis get out on the road, operators need to collect information about pedestrians and local conditions based on their daily driving. This is a time-consuming process that slows the deployment of technology.

According to Baidu, for operations such as U-turns, the Apollo system tracks as many as 200 vehicles, pedestrians, and other potential obstacles 100 meters (110 yards) away.

Mr. Wei said Baidu is pleased with its foreign partners to adapt its technology to their markets, but has not yet had an export plan while focusing on Chinese cities.

The intersection is still a challenge, Way said. Chinese pedestrians are accustomed to drivers gradual through the crowd at pedestrian crossings with green lights on, but robot cars can’t.

“Our car may always be handed over to people and unable to pass through the light,” Way said.

Baidu launched its own self-driving car brand, JIDU, and announced a concept car this month. Li said the company plans to target the family car market with prices in excess of $ 200,000 ($ 30,000).

The company also deals with three electric vehicle brands in China, manufacturing vehicles that incorporate computers, radar and light-based sensors instead of bolting to the roof. Baidu says it aims to bring the latest generation taxi sticker price to 480,000 yuan ($ 72,000).

To encourage others to use Apollo, Baidu states that it has made the platform open source and registered 210 industry partners and 80,000 developers who may create products based on it.

Apollo Go says it plans to expand its self-driving taxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 by 2030.

“The difference isn’t that big when compared to a human driver,” said Zhang Zhihua, 29, an interior designer who uses an unmanned Baidu taxi in Yizhuang. “Even if you’re not looking straight ahead, if you’re playing on your cell phone, it feels exactly the same.” JOE McDONALD, Beijing, MDT / AP

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