Baidu kicks off its robotaxi business, after getting the OK to charge fees in Beijing

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A information unit subordinate gets successful a self-driving robotaxi connected October 13, 2020, successful Beijing, China, a fewer days aft Baidu launched proceedings operations of its Apollo Robotaxi.

Zhao Jing | Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING — Baidu tin commencement collecting robotaxi fares successful a portion of Beijing from Thursday, the Chinese tech elephantine told CNBC this week, marking a large measurement toward gathering its driverless taxi business.

The regulatory support to enactment robotaxis successful China comes arsenic section governments successful the U.S. person been progressing successful a akin direction.

However, Beijing city's determination carries further weight.

Approval from China's superior marks the archetypal clip specified a ample metropolis successful the state has allowed companies to complaint the nationalist for robotaxi rides. It sets the signifier for different cities similar Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to bash the same, Wei Dong, vice president and main information cognition officer, astatine Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group told CNBC successful an exclusive interview.

He expects those cities to enactment aboriginal this twelvemonth oregon aboriginal adjacent year.

How overmuch volition it cost?

Effective Thursday, Baidu's Apollo portion that runs the robotaxi concern tin cod fares from passengers taking 1 of 67 self-driving cars successful Beijing's suburban territory of Yizhuang.

While the institution did not disclose nonstop pricing, it said fares would beryllium comparable with the premium level ride-hailing charges disposable done apps similar Didi, which tin outgo doubly arsenic overmuch arsenic mean rides.

Baidu has offered escaped robotaxi rides successful Yizhuang since October 2020. As of Wednesday, the robotaxi app, branded "Luobo Kuaipao," showed a illustration fare of 34 yuan ($5.31) for a 3-kilometer thrust (1.86 miles) from a Sam's Club successful Yizhuang to a adjacent subway station.

The aforesaid way costs astir 14 yuan ($2.19) done Didi's basal explicit car service. Didi's illustration premium level fare for the aforesaid way is 27 yuan.

So far, the novelty of a free, self-driving taxi has drawn a fig of regular users successful Yizhuang. Wei said much than 20,000 users each instrumentality astatine slightest 10 rides a month. It's unclear however galore volition support utilizing the work erstwhile they person to wage for it, but Wei aims to get an further 100 robotaxi cars verified each year.

Robotaxis contention for U.S., China approval

Wei expects that successful the adjacent twelvemonth oregon two, the regulatory momentum volition apt broadly enactment the investigating of afloat driverless vehicles — those without information drivers — connected nationalist roads.

The outgo of a quality operator accounts for astir 60% of the idiosyncratic outgo successful ride-sharing, according to a Credit Suisse study past month.

On Nov. 16, Alibaba-backed autonomous driving institution AutoX claimed its afloat driverless robotaxis present run successful the largest azygous portion successful China — 168 quadrate kilometers (65 quadrate miles) successful the Pingshan District of the confederate metropolis of Shenzhen. AutoX said it began successful January to let the nationalist to motion up for robotaxi rides. It was not instantly wide whether determination was a outgo to ride.

Baidu's licence for commercialized autonomous conveyance operations covers a 60 quadrate kilometer area, including a municipality called Yizhuang that's location to galore businesses specified arsenic JD.com's headquarters. The portion is astir fractional an hour's thrust southbound of cardinal Beijing.

The Beijing metropolis authorities has besides made Yizhuang a investigating tract for autonomous driving by allowing companies to proceedings their projects there. These see JD's unmanned transportation vehicles and Baidu's robotaxi cars.

Baidu's enlargement plans

Last week, Baidu CEO Robin Li said the institution planned to expand its Apollo Go robotaxi work to 65 cities by 2025, and to 100 cities by 2030. That's up from 5 cities currently.

The institution besides announced its adjacent procreation of robotaxi vehicles would outgo fractional the terms to manufacture compared to the anterior generation. The models are co-branded with 3 electrical car makers: Chinese start-up WM Motor, Aion — a spin-off of state-owned GAC — and state-owned BAIC Group's Arcfox.

In June, Baidu and BAIC claimed they could manufacture 1,000 driverless cars for 480,000 yuan ($75,000) each, versus the mean of a 1 cardinal yuan for an autonomous car.

Wei joined Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group successful May aft 7 years astatine Shouqi Limousine & Chauffeur, wherever helium was CEO. The institution operates a high-end mentation of Didi.

He said Baidu's strategy for gathering a robotaxi concern is to trim the outgo of self-driving exertion and people circumstantial idiosyncratic scenarios.

Rather than afloat utilizing lidar exertion — which requires costly sensors to make elaborate maps earlier the robotaxi tin run — Wei spoke mostly of utilizing algorithms to summation businesslike usage of hardware.

Read much astir electrical vehicles from CNBC Pro

On the user front, Wei said Apollo would absorption connected ways to springiness the idiosyncratic an acquisition beyond conscionable a mode of transport — specified arsenic displaying the streets of Beijing from 20 years agone connected the car windows, alternatively of the existent thoroughfare view.

Another strategy lies successful uncovering ways to utilize the robotaxi for non-travel functions, specified arsenic a abstraction for aesculapian attraction oregon a nationalist library, helium said.

Although Apollo is conscionable a tiny portion of Baidu, its improvement falls successful enactment with the CEO's attempts to person investors the broader company's aboriginal lies successful artificial quality and related areas specified arsenic autonomous driving.

The company's fastest country of gross maturation successful the 3rd 4th was successful "non-online selling revenue," up 76% from a twelvemonth agone to 5.2 cardinal yuan ($806 million). Baidu attributed the maturation to request for unreality computing and its different AI businesses.

— CNBC's Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.