Robo-taxis set to hit Shanghai as companies test self-driving cars
Driverless taxis parked in Shanghai. EFE/Paula Climbing Medrano
The interior of a driverless taxi model in Shanghai. EFE/Paula Climbing Medrano
By Paula Escalada Medrano
Shanghai, China, Aug 11 (EFE).- Would you dare to get in a driverless taxi? In China, this has already become a possibility thanks to robo-taxis that are being used in pilot programs to further develop and improve self-driving vehicles.
The latest to jump on the bandwagon is Didi, the Chinese ride-sharing and taxi giant, which recently got permission from the Shanghai administration to test autonomous vehicles in a specially designated area and is in the process of obtaining permits for launching its robo-taxis.
Didi's Chief Technology Officer Bo Zhang announced the robo-taxi venture during the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in late August. He said the company was yet to receive some permissions but sounded confident that everything would be ready by the end of this year.
On the same day, EFE had the opportunity to test Didi's self-driving system at a closed circuit onboard one of the 30 robo-taxis that might soon be plying the streets of Shanghai's Jiading district.
With the mandatory safety driver sitting in the driver's seat without touching the steering wheel and pedals, the user is able to observe how the steering moves on its own, how the car accelerates when moving straight and reduces speed on turns or before sensing obstacles.
Zhang said the upcoming robo-taxi services would be free because the program was not aimed at making profit but used as a way of developing technology and getting real feedback from passengers in order to improve.
The project seeks to obtain the precious "big data”, which can be used for analyzing how the cars respond to real-life situations on highways and how the passengers interact with them.
Thus, passengers are set to function as a sort of guinea-pigs for autonomous driving.
Zhang said the risk was worth it, claiming that when autonomous driving expands in the future, the number of accidents would go down "exponentially”.
Although Didi is yet to be allowed to carry passengers in its robo-taxis, other companies have already entered the field.
Tech giant Baidu has been running around 10 autonomous taxis in the city of Changsha for a few weeks, while American company Pony ai is also in the fray.
A Pony ai spokesperson told EFE that the company unveiled its PonyPilot project in December 2018 and became the first to launch robo-taxis in China, initially in the city of Guangzhou and later extending services to Beijing and the city of Fremont in the United States.
The spokesperson said the total urban area covered by its self-driving cabs in different cities was close to 300 square kilometers (around 115 miles), with Ghaungzhou alone accounting for more than 100 sq. km.
"We run the largest robo-taxi operation in China per coverage and number of rides," he said.
Didi is planning to operate in Jiading, an area in Shanghai were the government established a pilot zone in March 2018 for testing driverless vehicles. It is close to the city's Auto City industrial park, where the biggest auto industries of the region are situated
Local governments have also been eager to participate in the development of autonomous vehicles, and many cities have announced special zones for testing driverless cars, areas which are open to traffic and allow manufacturers to test their vehicles and get real results.
In recent years, almost all the major Chinese carmakers and tech companies have strongly backed autonomous driving, with the government often collaborating with private firms in the field.
Zhang said working with local governments was among the priorities for Didi as robo-taxis were the "best" way of marketing autonomous vehicles. Didi has a presence in 100 cities worldwide with more than 30 million daily trips.
He said selling autonomous vehicles directly to consumers was not feasible in the near future, as the mainstream acceptance of such cars would be quite slow due to limitations.
The Didi CTO said when a user sought a taxi, his or her destination and route was already known to the company, and it could decide if the requirements could be fulfilled using a self-driving vehicle.