China, with its sights set squarely on robotaxis, is rapidly increasing its autonomous vehicle (AV) testing. Autonomous truck and goods AV testing are also growing. Road tests for self-driving vehicles with safety driver are available in more than 20 provinces and/or cities in China. China allowed local governments to arrange road tests for AVs starting in April 2018.
Autonomous Vehicles in China
China is serious about developing AV technologies. There are a lot of factors likely to lead to strong growth, including growing venture capital investments, government support, and excellent AV companies.
From all of the data and other information I collected for this column, here’s what I think stands out:
- China is going full steam ahead on robotaxi applications. The AV startups are the clear leaders in developing the robotaxi software and testing for China’s future AV deployment. The key companies include Baidu Apollo, AutoX, Pony.ai, WeRide and Didi’s AV subsidiary. There are many other important Chinese AV companies that are not included in this column.
- AV deployment will leverage 5G and C-V2X technologies for all AV use-cases. This will provide a useful infrastructure for AV operation and may lower some of the complexity for AV deployment. This is a good strategy for China’s AV future.
- This infrastructure will be useful for teleoperation and there is no question that China is planning to use such remote operation of AVs. Teleoperation is now part of the Baidu Apollo open software platform.
- There are hints that China will use this AV infrastructure to manage or at least provide useful guidance to future large-scale AV operation. This is not a near-term goal and it will be 2030 or later until this becomes viable. Potentially, this could evolve into the equivalent of an “air-traffic control system” for some or all AV use-cases.
- Most of the leading AV startups got their early knowledge and experience from testing in California. This happened because California-based testing was available several years before China AV testing was allowed. Much of the AV expertise was also present in Silicon Valley. This has allowed the Chinese startups to rapidly expand in China when AV testing permits became available.
- China is also investing in other AV use-cases such as goods AVs and autonomous trucks, but at a lower level than robotaxis.
It is interesting to note that the Covid pandemic has not had much impact on China’s AV investments in robotaxi technology and services. The U.S. is a different story, with much of the AV focus having shifted to goods AVs and autonomous trucks.
There is a table below that summarizes some of the key AV activities in China. Most of the AV tests are focused on robotaxi use-cases. The leading robotaxi companies are included in the table and are described below.
Baidu AV Activities
Baidu Apollo is the leader in AV testing in China. As of July 2020, Baidu Apollo surpassed 6 million kilometers (3.73 million miles) in urban road testing. With a fleet of over 500 AVs, Baidu has tested in 27 cities worldwide including cities in California. Baidu Apollo has received 150 AV licenses for self-driving testing in China including 120 permits that allow the AVs to carry passengers. Baidu has completed over 100K passenger-carrying trips as of June 2020. Baidu calls its robotaxi service Apollo Go and the service is free for now.
All current AV testing and robotaxi services are using a safety driver.
Baidu Apollo started AV testing in Beijing in 2018 and compiled 139,000 kilometers during 2018. Baidu’s AV testing increased significantly during 2019, reaching a total of 894,000 kilometers.
Baidu was the first company to provide robotaxi services in Beijing. It started robotaxi testing in December 2019, and as of August had racked up over half-a-million kilometers of robotaxi testing, and had received permission to start offering services. The Baidu Apollo robotaxi service currently operates 40 AVs in Beijing, ferrying passengers between 100 pickup and drop-off points. The service area includes a road network of about 700 km.
The company also has robotaxis deployed in Changsha, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Cangzhou.
Baidu opened its Apollo Go services to the public in Changsha in April 2020 with 45 AVs. Apollo Go service has 55 pickup and drop-off points and covers an area of 70 square kilometers.
Baidu started its Apollo Go services to the public in Cangzhou in August 2020 with 30 AVs. It also has 55 pickup and drop-off points and covers an area of 130 square kilometers.
In March 2020 Baidu won a project in Chongqing worth over $7 million to develop an AV testing area with 5G and C-V2X network capabilities. Future robotaxi services are expected.
Baidu’s Apollo Park in Beijing is among the largest autonomous driving test sites and was completed in May 2020. The test area supports the development of autonomous vehicles, as well as C-V2X and 5G technology. The 13,500 square meter (145,300 square ft) Apollo Park contain more than 200 AVs and can support all aspects of AV development and testing.
Baidu is using the Hongqi EV for its AV testing and robotaxi services. The Hongqi EV was jointly developed by Baidu and FAW and released for AV use in August 2019. Baidu’s fifth-generation AV hardware and software are installed during the production phase of the Hongqi EV SUVs.
At the Baidu World Conference in September 2020, Baidu demoed AVs without safety drivers, but using teleoperation for safety. Baidu has developed its own tele-operation using 5G cellular networks and C-V2X. Tele-operation allow remote control of Baidu AVs instead of safety drivers. Baidu has completed over 1,000 hours of remote driving training without any incidents.
In August 2020 Baidu Apollo won a contract to implement smart-city project worth $67 million in Guangzhou. Baidu will develop an intelligent transportation network based on 5G and C-V2X to be used for AVs, robotaxis and other MaaS use-cases.
AutoX AV activities
AutoX has AV activities in the U.S. and China. AutoX launched a goods AV service delivering groceries in a limited area of San Jose, Calif., in 2018. In 2019 AutoX had one of the best results in California’s AV testing results. In China, AutoX has operations in several cities including Shanghai, where it has 100 AVs on the road.
In China AutoX is concentrating on robotaxi services and cooperating with several taxi operators and multiple auto OEMs such as BYD, Dongfeng and FCA.
AutoX received an investment of $100 million from Dongfeng in 2019 and announced plans to produce L4 commercial vehicles. The company has also signed an AV partnership with China’s largest EV maker, BYD. Alibaba is a leading investor and supporter of AutoX.
At CES, 2020 AutoX announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) for developing robotaxis. The companies will launch a robotaxi fleet in China, using FCA’s Chrysler Pacifica and powered by AutoX’s AI Driver system.
AutoX also has a partnership with Letzgo, a taxi fleet operator with 16,000 taxis in 18 cities in China. In April 2020, AutoX opened its RoboTaxi Operations Center in Shanghai to manage the data from its AV operation. The center will also provide extensive AV driving simulation to test complex driving scenarios and improve its driving software.
AutoX has also been testing AVs in Shenzhen since 2018 and has a partnership with the largest taxi operator there. The company is using BYD EVs in its robotaxi service in Shenzhen. AutoX has AV test activities in four other cities in China: Changzhou, Guangzhou, Wuhu and Wuhan.
AutoX is also looking into the logistics and delivery business in China. AutoX has strategic partnerships with courier company ZTO Express and food delivery giant Meituan-Dianping.