Baidu’s self-driving taxis provide safety driverless rides in China

Baidu has become the first company in China to obtain a permit to operate a commercial self-driving taxi service without the need for a safety driver.

Baidu’s service, known as Apollo Go, has been operational in parts of China since 2021, but still with a safety driver behind the wheel or in the front passenger seat.

That changed on Monday when the company announced its service was now allowed on open roads in the cities of Chongqing and Wuhan without a security driver, but only during daylight hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Chongqing and 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Wuhan. The areas in which taxis currently operate are also limited, measuring around 12 square miles in Chongqing’s Yongchuan district and roughly five square miles in the Wuhan Technology Development Zone.

The plan is to expand these areas as well as add more towns. Baidu‘s taxis also operate in parts of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, and the company is applying for permission to have services in Beijing and Guangzhou subsequently freed from the need for a security driver.

Baidu also aims to double the number of its taxis on Chinese roads to around 600 by the end of the year.

“This is a huge qualitative change,” Wei Dong, head of Baidu’s smart driving group, said in a statement. “Fully driverless cars offering rides on open roads to paying customers means we have finally arrived at the moment the industry has been waiting for.”

Baidu’s Apollo RT6 self-driving taxi

To receive the permit, Baidu’s taxis had to undergo extensive testing and licensing, starting with testing with a safety driver behind the wheel to have the safety driver in the front passenger seat, and then finally receiving permission to operate without anyone on board.

Baidu, which is often described as the Google of China as the company runs the country’s largest search engine, also unveiled its sixth-generation self-driving taxi on Monday. Dubbed the Apollo RT6, the vehicle is said to cost 250,000 renminbi (around $37,000) a unit and will start operating in 2023.

In the US, Alphabet’s Waymo and General Motors-backed Cruise are allowed to charge fares in their respective driverless taxis. Waymo’s service is limited to parts of Phoenix but is being tested in San Francisco, while Cruise’s service is limited to parts of San Francisco.