Baidu’s bold new robotaxi comes with a removable steering wheel

Chinese research firm Baidu has announced the introduction of a new self-driving electric taxi called Apollo RT6. As well as looking a bit like a Honda Odyssey, it features a removable steering wheel for use in the company’s self-driving transport service in 2023.

Sixth generation — The Apollo RT6 is built on Baidu’s sixth-generation autonomous vehicle platform with an L4 autonomous driving system. It’s the company’s first not designed to be fitted to other cars. Baidu announced it was developing its own electric vehicles last year, and this new robotaxi appears to be one of the first major fruits of Baidu’s twin self-driving and electric vehicle projects.

Baidu says the work it’s done to develop its own electric battery architecture is part of the reason it’s able to offer the Apollo RT6 for the astonishingly low price of $37,000 to other companies that seek to offer autonomous journeys.

Besides a purposely removable steering wheel – apologies for Toyota’s slightly different steering wheel situation – Baidu says the Apollo RT6’s interior should be incredibly modular, “allowing the installation of additional seats, vending machines, computers desktop or game consoles”.

See, no steering wheel needed.Baidu

Is self-driving there? — If all of this sounds a little optimistic, you’re right to be at least a little wary. Baidu claims the RT6 is “production ready” yet most of its promotional materials feature what look like computer-generated cars.

The EV space is teeming with “vaporcars” and self-driving technology is still in the very early stages of development and public use. Still, Baidu has made significant progress that has boosted confidence. The company was allowed to test self-driving cars in Beijing without a safety driver in April 2022 and it runs its Apollo Go ride service in 10 cities across China. For comparison, Google’s Waymo One self-driving service is operating in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area, and testing is underway in San Francisco.

I’m not holding my breath that a standalone revolution will somehow happen by the launch of Baidu’s Apollo RT6 in 2023, but the company is certainly fighting back.