China continues to lead in the development of robotaxis. This post will explore the status of robotaxis in China. A future column will focus on robotaxi trends in U.S. and other regions.
It is important to examine the general strategy and playbook of Chinese robotaxi companies before considering individual firms.
- The vast majority of robotaxi operations use safety drivers. Driverless robotaxis trials have emerged in the last year and will grow. Driverless robotaxis have teleoperation-based remote operation as a backup for a safety driver.
- Robotaxi operations remain free to the public in most cities. The earliest robotaxi operators are starting to charge fees as the experience grows.
- Chinese robotaxi operators use fixed (or variable) pick-up and drop-off points for a given area. For instance, WeRide had 200 spots in Guangzhou in November 2020 in an area covering 144 square kilometers. Using a limited number of pickup and drop-off points is a big advantage. The routes for any trip can be determined for any ride, avoiding the most difficult traffic scenarios.
- Many Chinese operators are including 5G-based C-V2X systems. This is a useful operational strategy, and will become a major safety advantage since C-V2X communications are widely used in China.
The table below summarizes activities at the five leading Chinese robotaxi software developers.
AutoX was founded in 2016 and is headquartered in San Jose. AutoX has so far attracted $160 million in venture funding. Among its backers are leading Chinese OEM Dongfeng and Alibaba.
AutoX is partnering with BYD, China’s largest EV maker. It also has partnership agreements with Dongfeng and Fiat Chrysler, which is now part of Stellantis.
AutoX has operations in several cities, including Shanghai, where it has 100 AVs on the road. AutoX is concentrating on robotaxi services and is cooperating with several taxi operators.
In April 2020, AutoX opened a robotaxi operations center in Shanghai to manage data from its AV operation. The center will also provide extensive AV driving simulations to test complex driving scenarios and improve its software.
It has been testing AVs in Shenzhen since 2018, and has a partnership with the largest taxi operator there. The company is using BYD EVs for its robotaxi service in Shenzhen. AutoX has test activities in four other cities in China: Changzhou, Guangzhou, Wuhu and Wuhan. AutoX also has a partnership with Letzgo, a taxi fleet operator with 16,000 taxis in 18 Chinese cities.
During CES 2020, AutoX announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to develop robotaxis. The partners will launch a robotaxi fleet in China, using FCA’s Chrysler Pacifica and powered by AutoX’s AI driver system.
In 2018, AutoX launched a AV service delivering groceries in a limited area of San Jose. It gained a robotaxi pilot permit in June 2019 issued by the California Public Utilities Commission, launching a robotaxi pilot service in San Jose area. In 2019 and 2020, AutoX achieved among the best results in California’s AV testing in terms of mileage between disengagements. AutoX drove over 70,000 miles with eight AVs in California between 2019 and 2020.
AutoX received a driverless AV testing permit in July 2020, allowing it to operate driverless AVs in sections of San Jose, but the permit does not specify where.
Meanwhile, it is also exploring a logistics and delivery business in China as part of deal with courier company ZTO Express and food delivery giant Meituan.
AutoX introduced its fifth-generation system in July, using the Nvidia Drive platform based on the Ampere GPU with up to 2,200-TOPS performance. The system employs 50 sensors, including 28 cameras, 6 lidars and a signal 4D radar from Arbe.
Founded in 2000, Baidu has emerged as China’s leading internet search company. Beijing-based Baidu went public on the Nasdaq exchange in 2005. Revenues topped $16.4 billion in 2020.
Baidu is a leader in AI research, and is applying the technology to autonomous vehicles. Its AV research began in 2013, with the launch its Apollo project in early 2017. Baidu maintains two strategies for its AV activities: Apollo open source AV software platform and its own AV products based on Apollo software technology.
The internet giant has already built an impressive Apollo open source ecosystem, with more than 200 companies participating. They include most auto OEMs, domestic and foreign, Tiert-1s and much of the automotive supply chain.
Baidu’s AV activities are focused on robotaxi services, including testing and rapidly growing deployment, making it China’s robotaxi leader. Apollo Go is now operating in four cities: Beijing, Guangzhou, Changsha and Cangzhou. Baidu Apollo started AV testing in Beijing in 2018.
Apollo L4 autonomous driving accumulated 8.7 million test miles by the end of June, up 152 percent year-over-year. Apollo has received 278 autonomous driving permits across China, or about 50 percent of total AV permits in China.
At the end of the second quarter, the Baidu Apollo autonomous driving service had accumulated more than 400,000 rides compared to over 210,000 rides as of December 2020 and 100,000 rides in June 2020.
Baidu Apollo has about 500 test AVs and robotaxis in operation, and is testing in 27 cities, including in California. It plans to deploy 3,000 AVs in the next three years in 30 Chinese cities.
Apollo Go’s first robotaxi service with no safety driver is open to the public at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics site. Robotaxis will likely be used during the Winter Olympics in February 2022.
Baidu is using the Hongqi EV for its AV testing and robotaxi services. The Hongqi EV was jointly developed with FAW and released for AV use in August 2019. Baidu’s fifth-generation AV hardware and software are installed during production the Hongqi EV SUVs.
In June, Baidu and BAIC announced plans for a robotaxi called Apollo Moon. Baidu and BAIC will manufacture around 1,000 Apollo Moons costing about $75,000 each.
Baidu’s Apollo Park in Beijing is a large AV test site completed in May. The test area supports development of autonomous vehicles, as well as C-V2X and 5G technology. Infrastructure is a big part of Baidu’s drive to expand Apollo Go, and Baidu plans to use 5G C-V2X as it deploys robotaxis. Apollo Park contain more than 200 AVs and can support all aspects of development and testing.
Momenta was founded in 2016 and is headquartered in Beijing. It has so far garnered $1 billion in venture funding with the latest round in late September. GM has invested $300 million, and Mercedes-Benz, SAIC and Toyota are also backers. SAIC is the leading Chinese auto OEM. Bosch and other venture firms have also invested in Momenta.
Momenta’s strategy is similar to Mobileye’s: developing ADAS and driver monitoring systems, including products and services for fleet operators. Momenta is selling ADAS and semi-automated driving software to carmakers while investing in L4 autonomous vehicle software.
Momenta has developed three ADAS versions of its Mpilot product line: highway, parking and urban. The first commercial version integrated with Mpilot will be deployed this year. Momenta will collect data from its Mpilot deployment to help improve its robotaxi software learning and testing. It plans to gather billions of miles of driving data for training robotaxi software by 2025.
Momenta Go robotaxi service started pilot operations with safety drivers in October 2020 in Suzhou, near Shanghai. Robotaxi testing will be expanded both in size and scope with the goal of eliminating safety drivers in some vehicles during 2022. By 2024, Momenta Go will be deployed on a larger scale.
Pony.ai was founded in 2016, with headquarters in Guangzhou, China, and Fremont, Calif. Investment total more than $1.1 billion. The company is considering an initial stock offering to raise additional funds, as have many of its competitors.
Pony.ai is testing in California where it has the largest effort of any Chinese company. By 2020, the company had accumulated 225,000 miles with 29 AVs.
Its Chinese testing effort is much larger, surpassing 3.8 million miles as of June. Pony.ai has a fleet of 200 AVs for testing and robotaxi services in three Chinese cities: Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Robotaxi testing with passengers in Guangzhou started in late 2018.
In May, Pony.ai gained approval to test commercial autonomous freight operations in Guangzhou. Since May, it has logged more than 23,000 miles and transported over 13,000 tons of goods.
Pony.ai is testing AVs in three California cities—Irvine, Milpitas and Fremont, obtaining a permit in May to test six autonomous vehicles without a safety driver on designated roads in the three Californian cities. Its goal is to deploy driverless robotaxi service in 2022.
Pony.ai and GAC formed a strategic partnership to advance AV technologies and mobility services in February 2018. As a result, the GAC Aion LX used for testing and rototaxi trials achieved L4 AV status in September 2019.
Pony.ai and Toyota teamed on AV pilot testing in August 2019 in China. In July 2020, Pony.ai began AV testing in Shanghai using Lexus RX vehicles. A Lexus RX fleet equipped with Pony.ai’s autonomous driving solutions are deployed in Shanghai.
Pony.ai said it plans to deploy its L4 self-driving system by 2023 in China, with robotaxis at the top of its list.
Headquartered in Guangzhou, China, WeRide was founded in 2017. Venture funding to date totals about $620 million. Investors include two auto OEMs—Yutong and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.
Alliance Ventures, the investment arm of Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, became a WeRide backer in October 2018, and invested a second time in June. WeRide received a strategic investment of $200 million in December 2020 from Yutong Group, a leading Chinese bus manufacturer.
OEM partners include Dongfeng, Jiangling Motors, Nissan and Yutong. In February, WeRide unveiled the Dongfeng Fengshen E70 self-driving model that will be used for AV testing and robotaxi services.
WeRide also buys vehicles from auto OEMs, including Nissan, Ford Lincoln and GAC. It then adds its suite of AV software and hardware for its robotaxi testing.
The product strategy involves developing an AV software and hardware platform that can be used for multiple mobility services use cases. WeRide is using its AV platform to develop its own robotaxi service platform for deployment in Chinese cities.
WeRide is also developing a small robobus for last-mile deliveries. Yutong and WeRide jointly developed a mini-robobus that uses WeRide’s robotaxi software platform. WeRide is collaborating with bus operators on a robobus AV trial launched in Nanjing and Guangzhou in January.
In September, the company unveiled its robovan for last-mile goods delivery. WeRide is working with Jiangling Motors, a major Chinese auto manufacturer, and ZTO Express, a leading Chinese express deliverer.
WeRide operates robotaxis primarily in Guangzhou, beginning testing in November 2018. The first public robotaxi service, began in November 2019 in Guangzhou, covering a service area of 144 square kilometers. In its first year of operation, more than 147,000 trips were completed with about 60,000 passengers. The number of passenger rides should now be more than 300,000. The pilot program is a joint venture with a large Chinese taxi operator, with more than 10,000 taxis.
WeRide received a permit in July 2020 to launch China’s first driverless AV tests on public roads in Guangzhou. If needed, the driverless AVs can be controlled by a remote operator. WeRide’s fleet includes 10 AVs tested without a safety driver. The goal is launching a robotaxi service without safety drivers this year in a designated area in Guangzhou.
WeRide has over 120 AVs used for robotaxi operations and AV testing.
China is clearly on a path to develop, test, improve and deploy robotaxis as a key component of its transportation infrastructure. Also clear is that robotaxi software platform developers will use their technologies for other mobility services use cases, including autonomous buses and last -mile goods delivery in robovans.
Development of driverless robotaxis includes multiple steps that will take many years. The first stage is clear, but futures steps remain difficult to forecast.
The initial stage includes robotaxis rides between a fixed number of pickup and drop-off points for a specified area. The number of points will grow, as will the number of areas in a city and locations in between. This first stage is just underway, and will likely extend into 2025.