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Baidu pushes development of autonomous taxi business, signs agreement with Changsha

A self-driving car powered by Baidu's Apollo software Photo: Baidu

Just four months after Baidu commenced the volume production and trial operation of a driverless minibus called Apolong, the Chinese technology company has expanded its self-driving revolution to a new field: autonomous taxi that features a high level of autonomy.

Baidu, which has invested heavily in its Apollo self-driving platform, has signed a strategic agreement with the government of Changsha, the capital of southern China's Hunan province, for approval of road test of autonomous taxi which is powered by the Level 4 autonomy, reported Caixin, a leading news provider in China, citing a source from the company.

The Society of Automotive Engineers divides autonomous driving into six levels from Level 0 to Level 5. A vehicle featuring the Level 5 autonomy can run fully independently without any human intervention. Apolong is characterized by the Level 4 autonomy, which enables the minibus to be almost totally in control all the time without any human intervention. At this level, a self-driving car will only stop itself if there is a system failure or the condition dictates that a human driver behind the wheel should take control.

The deal makes Baidu the first domestic company to conduct road test of a self-driving taxi in China, despite the absence of a specific state-level regulation on testing standards. This year, a number of Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have successively given nod to technology firms to test the prototypes of their autonomous passenger cars on designated roads. Previously, road tests for autonomous cars were banned due to road safety concerns.

By 2019, the number of autonomous taxies under road tests in Changsha will reach 100, according to the source.

Under the agreement, Baidu will also help Changsha build several demonstration bus routes which will be operated with the Apolong minibus that is now available in Beijing and the Xiongan New Area, a newly established economic zone in China.

The opening of smart bus routes is considered a part of Changsha's plan to build an intelligent city, which focuses on application of smart technologies into public services ranging from social security to public transportation. The development plan was released in 2017.

The cooperation between Baidu and Changsha is a result of the Apollo platform, a self-driving ecosystem which was established in April last year and is dedicated to sharing related technologies with third-party partners.

As of the end of October, Baidu has received about 30 autonomous car road test certificates from local governments.

A big business

With the development of self-driving technology, a wider use of autonomous cars is inevitable.

Purpose-built autonomous vehicles for mobility services will provide a new market segment, with the market for this new mode of transportation expected to increase to as much as 5 million units by 2030, shows a study by Roland Berger.

The study highlights the trend of autonomous driving, which is estimated to reach mass production within the next five to 10 years, predicting that driverless taxi would be an alternative choice for travelers by 2025.

Baidu has sensed the business opportunity in China, where it has taken the initiative to launch the operation of the Apolong minibus, with its chairman and chief executive officer Robin Li saying that "2018 marks the beginning of the commercialization of autonomous driving".

In this market segment, Baidu has a big competitor: Didi Chuxing.

The taxi-hailing company, which occupies about 90 percent of the Chinese market, is poised to set up a comprehensive platform where automakers can market the sharing services of their autonomous cars, as part of its ambitious blueprint for building a smart public transportation system across the country.

For this goal, Didi Chuxing has forged an alliance with numerous domestic and foreign automakers such as Geely Automobile and Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Some industry experts are bullish on Didi Chuxing, arguing that the car-hailing company would become China's biggest platform for the operation of smart car sharing service in the near future because it gives automakers a channel to commercialize their smart cars at a time when most domestic consumers would not think it is necessary to buy an autonomous car which requires special road conditions for operation.

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