Self-propelled robot axes are on the rise in China

Hong Kong
CNN business

The world has been moving towards fully autonomous cars for years. In China, one company has just gotten closer to implementation.

AutoX, an Alibaba (BABA)-backed startup, announced on Thursday that it has rolled out fully driverless robotic taxis on public roads in Shenzhen. The company said it became the first company in China to do so, marking an important milestone in the industry.

Previously, companies operating autonomous shuttles on the country’s public roads were constrained by strict restrictions that required them to have a safety driver inside.

This program is different. In Shenzhen, AutoX completely removed the backup driver or all remote operators for its local fleet of 25 cars, it said. The government doesn’t restrict where in the city AutoX operates, although the company said it’s focusing on the inner city.

The company released a video of its minivan — the Fiat Chrysler Pacifica — navigating on its own downtown, showing passengers boarding, loading a package into the back seat and letting a dog hop in for a spin.

It also shows the car navigating around truck loading, passing pedestrians and making a U-turn.

“It’s a dream,” Jianxiong Xiao, CEO of AutoX, said in an interview. “After working so hard for so many years, we’ve finally reached the point where the technology is mature enough that we feel confident about really removing the security driver ourselves.”

Xiao said the company won over regulators after working to improve both its software and hardware. “We have over 100 vehicles on the road every day [in China] to collect data,” he said. “The AI ​​software is better [now.]”

“From a technical point of view, the car is ready,” Xiao said. “It’s very important to have this car, otherwise we can’t drive driverless.”

AutoX was founded in 2016 by Xiao, a former assistant professor at Princeton who still likes to be called “Professor X”. The Shenzhen-based company is focused on manufacturing the technology that goes into self-driving cars, working with major automakers like Fiat Chrysler to develop and bring its robotic taxis to market.

The new initiative is still in test mode and is currently not publicly available. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, according to Xiao, who said he hopes to get permission to expand the program to regular passengers in the next two or three years.

While AutoX has claimed an advantage in China, it’s not the first time fully driverless shuttles have roamed public roads. This summer, the company received approval to conduct fully autonomous tests on public roads in parts of San Jose, California, clearing another hurdle in one of its most important markets.

In October, Alphabet’s Waymo went one step further and announced it would be opening its unmanned transportation service to the public in Phoenix, Arizona. (It now offers rides to nearby passengers via an app.)

Domestic competition is also intensifying. Recently, Chinese companies have started letting more ordinary people experience what it’s like to drive a self-driving car.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has shown the need for contactless services, which has encouraged the government to move faster with autonomous technology, Xiao said.

In June, Didi, China’s largest ridesharing company, began offering free rides in its autonomous vehicles within a certain area of ​​Shanghai.

Recently, Chinese tech giant Baidu (BIDU) also announced that anyone can try its robotaxi service in certain districts of Beijing. Both programs require dedicated security drivers.

AutoX already has more than 100 robot axes in use in five Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Wuhan. Over the next year, the reach is to be doubled to more than 10 local cities. Whether the company can pull people away from the wheel in other markets depends on local regulators, Xiao said.

In Shanghai, its vehicles are available to public users who can call them via Alibaba’s car navigation app, a Chinese mapping app.

The startup’s latest approval from local authorities in Shenzhen came after six months of trials it had already conducted there.

Some of the company’s lessons so far include how to better adapt to traffic conditions in each location, according to Xiao. In Shenzhen, for example, motorists on bicycles and scooters often have to watch out for delivery people, and drivers are known to drive more aggressively than in the United States, he said.

“The traffic scenarios are much more challenging,” he added. “We had to do a lot of work for our AI to adapt it to the local Chinese driving style.”

China, home to the world’s largest auto sector, could one day become the top global market for automated vehicles, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey. It predicts that the country could generate as much as $1.1 trillion in revenue from autonomous mobility services by 2040.

However, the industry still has a long way to go. Xiao estimates it could be another five years before unmanned taxis become the norm across China.

“The bar is incredibly high,” he said. “It’s extremely challenging, but we’re very satisfied.”

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