No human at wheel: Baidu secures fully driverless robotaxi license in China

China's answer to Google says it is now the first and only company in the country to provide fully driverless robotaxi service to the public.

Baidu announced Monday that it would offer commercial rides to the public on open roads in two of China's megacities, Chongqing and Wuhan, after obtaining the first permits in China to do so. A fleet of five Apollo 5th generation robotaxis will operate in each city after undergoing what the company says were multiple steps of testing and licensing to ensure safety.

The service will, for now, be limited to daytime hours. Fee-charging robotaxis will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Wuhan and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Chongqing. Their geography will also be confined to 13 square kilometers in the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone and 30 square kilometers in Chongqing's Yongchuan District.

Still, this is a big step for Baidu, which hopes to expand the service throughout China. The company described it as a "tremendous qualitative change" and a "key milestone" in rolling out fully autonomous driving services at scale.

Previously, Baidu won a permit to run an autonomous taxi service in Beijing, but it still requires a human operator in one of the vehicle's front seats. It is also not a commercial service, ferrying passengers for free as part of the research and development process.

In the US, self-driving company Cruise already offers commercial, fully driverless rides in select streets of San Francisco, where it operates from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It received a permit in January and is preparing to launch an autonomous robotaxi service in Dubai next year.

Another company, Waymo, has been running fully autonomous commercial rides in the greater Phoenix area since 2020.

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