Baidu has secured a permit to operate China’s first-ever fully driverless licensed robotaxis, winning an early lead in the race to launch autonomous cars in the country.
The internet group said on Monday it would be able to operate its Apollo Go cars without a safety supervisor on board in the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Chongqing.
Winning the permit has given Baidu, the operator of China’s largest search engine, an edge over its rivals, including Pony.ai, WeRide and AutoX, which are racing to develop fully autonomous driving software systems.
The permit would allow the company to carry out more testing of its vehicles, said autonomous driving analyst Charlie Chai from Shanghai-based 86 Research.
“My best guess is that commercialisation generating significant revenue is still two to three years away,” he said. “Tech-wise, the leaders are Pony.ai and [Baidu’s] Apollo, but in terms of scale and on-ground testing, deployment Baidu is ahead.”
The service will be available in the central city of Wuhan from 9am to 5pm, and the south-western Chongqing municipality from 9:30am to 4:30pm, with five robotaxis deployed in each city, said the company. The designated areas of service will cover 13 sq km in Wuhan and 30 sq km in Chongqing.
In April, Baidu and Pony.ai won approval to move the safety driver from behind the wheel to the front passenger seat for part of their robotaxi businesses in Beijing. Beijing regulators in July allowed the two companies to collect fees for driverless rides within a 60 sq km suburban zone of the capital city.
Baidu struggled in the first quarter, with its search and video streaming platforms — traditionally the company’s cash cows — experiencing flat growth as the Chinese economy slowed. The company is banking on the driverless car business to shore up revenues in the future.
Baidu reported an Rmb885mn ($131mn) net loss for the first three months of the year, compared with the previous year’s profit of Rmb25.65bn, with research and development expenses increasing 10 per cent year on year.
But Chai said the longer timeline for the commercialisation of autonomous driving was a dilemma for shareholders.
Search and growth at IQIYI, the streaming platform in which Baidu holds a controlling stake, were weak this year, he said. “The company lacks a good narrative . . . it only attracts patient investors who are willing to wait,” said Chai.
Robin Li, Baidu’s chief executive, said the company’s business had been hit by the resurgence of Covid-19 in China since mid-March, but he remained confident that its artificial intelligence businesses could boost the long-term growth of the internet group.
Self-driving vehicles have become a new arena of US-China competition, according to analysts.
“China and the US are racing from the same starting line now,” said Owen Chen, an analyst with S&P Global Mobility. “It is not only technological competition between companies but also competition between countries and regional governments when it comes to policy support for the industry.”