, the leading search engine in China, has launched a robotaxi service in Shougang Park – an industrial park on the outskirts of Beijing which will be a site for the 2022 winter Olympics. Baidu claims the service is “fully driverless” and will be the first service in China where members of the public can hail a paid robotaxi of this sort.
The Baidu Apollo project is one of the most established such efforts in China. It recently reported over 10m kilometers of on-road testing in China, the first Asian company to reach that level. As we count the milestones to true deployment, without hard safety data, the best thing we can look at is how close a company is to the final goal. That final goal must check several boxes:
- It operates over a wide and financially viable service area
- The service is generally available to the public, or a specific commercially viable subset of the public
- It’s a real commercial operation, charging a competitive but profitable (at least on a COGS+ basis) fare
- There is no safety driver anywhere in the vehicle or any chase car
- Any remote operations center is just for occasional strategic advice, and there are significantly fewer (one quarter or less) remote operators than in-service vehicles
- Bonus points for particularly difficulty in driving the service area
Nobody is quite there. Waymo is closest, though their service area is currently limited and they have not disclosed their ratio of remote ops staff to vehicles. In addition only a portion of vehicles meet criteria #4. Starship (disclaimer, I am a stockholder) ticks all the boxes but does small deliveries, not passenger service.
AutoX was the second company to announce progress here, with a service in a quiet suburb of Shenzhen. A test ride of their service by a member of the press impressed me, showing the territory is considerably more complex than Waymo’s service area in Chandler Arizona, though not as complex as more urban parts of the USA or China.
in Russia has offered service with a safety driver in the passenger seat. This safety driver can still hit a kill switch and grab the wheel, so it’s an odd choice — the capability of the safety driver to do their job is impaired, so it’s mostly a show of confidence, a partway step to removing the driver. Others have also done this, or done non-public tests with no safety driver at all. WeRide recently demonstrated test operations in Guangzhou with no safety driver, so things are moving fast in China.
The Baidu service operates over a decent but small service area. It costs 30 RMB, but many rides can be made free by destinations. (It is unconfirmed if anybody is paying on day one.) The biggest missing point, however, is the presence of a safety employee in the passenger seat. Baidu states this employee is not there to do any driving, and is simply there to answer questions and help the passenger feel more comfortable. However, they can of course grab the wheel in an emergency, and may have a kill switch they can trigger.
In addition, Baidu has a remote operations center. All teams have those, but unlike most, operators in that center can actually remotely drive the vehicles, since Baidu can count on low-latency 5G networks in this region of Beijing. Baidu states remote operators are not constantly monitoring vehicles on a 1:1 ratio but did not yet respond to queries about the ratio of remote operators to cars. Most remote operations centers, with the goal of having a large ratio between cars and humans, have the remote operators only provide strategic advice the car can use to plan its way around something which was too confusing for the software. Cars typically stop and request a remote assist which does not drive. Having remote drive ability can resolve problems faster, which is good, but depends on very good networking. It is not a good idea to depend on it to solve problems in real time, while moving unless you have one operator per car, which defeats the point.
While Baidu is to be congratulated for having the confidence to take this step, this service does not come close to counting as “fully driverless.” It may be able to get there soon, however. It’s not as bad as how Tesla
calls their product “full self driving” and there is some bad hype inflation going on with certain industry players, who would probably be better served by underhyping rather than overhyping. Still, this project will teach them much as they deal with real customers. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, “no business plan survives first contact with the customer.”
AutoX’s service is closer, but it’s not clear how open it is to the general public. Some reports suggest members of the public must be approved, making it close to a wide beta. This is a fairly reasonable restriction, if for no other reason that most services have limited resources. In the future, robotaxi services which sell subscriptions will probably only sell to people who can make good but not excessive use of the service, though they will still probably take anybody on a pay-per-ride basis.
Rumors abound that Waymo will open in San Francisco or Silicon Valley soon. This would finish ticking their boxes. Waymo fares in Arizona are slightly less than Uber. Obviously nobody makes any profit during these pilot phases, but generally it should be possible to make a profit with prices close to Uber but no driver to pay as long as other costs stay in line.