Robotaxi trials surge in Shenzhen as China accelerates driverless car dreams

On a busy downtown street, three delivery bikes suddenly go over the crosswalk in front of the car. On the car’s dashboard, they look like little 3D blue blocks from a 1990s video game.

The steering wheel turns a notch and the vehicle gently slows down, while the safety driver watches from the passenger seat.

The vehicle is one of 100 sensor-laden robots belonging to start-up that criss-crosses the dense Futian Central Business District in southern China’s technology hub of Shenzhen, providing 50,000 trips. test to passengers last year.

While the United States is seen as the first to test autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, in Shenzhen the industry appears to be shifting gears, with trial robotaxis rapidly becoming a common site.

Baidu’s Apollo Unit, Toyota Motor-backed Pony, Nissan-backed Weride, Alibaba-backed Auto X and Deeproute all tested in the harsh city environment, with frequent jaywalkers and electric scooters ubiquitous.

Shenzhen, a city of 18 million, has now adopted the clearest audiovisual regulations in China. From Monday, registered AVs will be allowed to operate without a driver in the driver’s seat in a large part of the city, but a driver must always be present in the vehicle.

So far, Chinese cities have allowed robotaxis to operate on a more limited basis with permission from local authorities, but Shenzhen’s regulations provide a crucial framework for accident liability for the first time.

If the AV has a driver behind the wheel, the driver will be responsible in the event of an accident. If the car is completely driverless, the vehicle owner will be responsible. If a defect causes an accident, the car owner can claim compensation from the manufacturer.

“If you want more cars, eventually there will be accidents, so these regulations are very important for mass deployment,” said Maxwell Zhou, CEO of DeepRoute, speaking at the company’s offices in a park. technology near the Hong Kong border.

“It’s not really driverless, but it’s a big step.”

Gear switch

The US has taken the lead in AV testing so far, with California’s green light on public road testing starting in 2014, allowing Alphabet Inc’s Waymo LLC, Cruise and Tesla to accumulate millions of kilometers of road tests.

But China has its foot on the accelerator, with Beijing making AV a key area in its latest five-year plan. Shenzhen wants its smart vehicle industry to reach 200 billion yuan in revenue by 2025.

In May last year, Cruise chief executive Dan Amann warned President Joe Biden that US security regulations risked dragging the country’s audiovisual industry behind China, with “the approach top-down and centrally directed” of the latter.

Deeproute aims to have 1,000 robotaxis with safety drivers on Shenzhen roads in the next few years when more detailed regulations are expected.

But in a city with a public fleet of 22,000 electric taxis from Shenzhen-based BYD, where a 20 km (12 mile) trip costs around 60 yuan ($9), production costs for AV vehicles will have to come down before robotaxis are commercially viable, Zhou said.

Deeproute and other robotaxi companies are banking on mass production to cut costs and collect data. Deeproute sells its driving solutions to carmarkers for around $3,000.

Zhou sees Shenzhen’s DJI Technology Co as a role model, with the company using lower hardware costs and integrated supply chains to make it the dominant player in the commercial drone space globally.

On July 21, Baidu announced a new AV with a detachable steering wheel that it will use for robotaxis next year, at 250,000 yuan apiece, nearly half the price of its previous generation.

“We are heading towards a future where taking a robotaxi will cost half the price of a taxi today,” Baidu chief executive Robin Li said at the Baidu World conference.

Frogs in a well

Shenzhen’s supply chain and lower costs give it a major production advantage over Silicon Valley, but AV maker David Chang doesn’t want to be confined to just one market.

“In Shenzhen, the capital cost is one-third to California, because we have the battery suppliers, we have the sensors, we have most of the integration,” said Whale Dynamic CEO and Founder. , based in Shenzhen.

“But the income is one-twelfth for California, so maybe it’s not a fancy thing to do,” he said.

Deeproute, Weride, and also have offices in Silicon Valley, with R&D and testing teams in both locations.

“We don’t want to shrink into a pit and fight with other frogs. We want to jump out of that pit,” Chang said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


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