BEIJING — With no one at the wheel, a self-driving taxi developed by tech giant Baidu Inc. is rolling down a Beijing street when its sensors detect the corner of a van entering its lane.
The taxi stops half a car length away. “Sorry,” a recorded voice says to passengers. The steering wheel turns by itself as the cab makes its way around the cart. A Baidu engineer watches from the front passenger seat.
Baidu is China’s closest competitor in a multi-billion dollar race against rival autonomous vehicle developers, including Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo. And Cruise of General Motors Co., to turn their futuristic technology into a consumer product.
Baidu and a rival, Pony.ai, received China’s first permits in April to operate taxis with no one at the wheel but a safety officer on board. That came 18 months after Waymo started an unmanned taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, in October 2020.
Founded in 2000 as a search engine operator, Baidu has grown into artificial intelligence, processor chips, and other technology. It says its autonomous vehicles, if successful, could make driving cheaper, easier, and safer.
“We believe the main goal of autonomous driving is to reduce human-caused traffic accidents,” said Wei Dong, vice president of Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group.
Autonomous driving is part of a series of emerging technologies, from artificial intelligence to renewable energy, into which Chinese companies invest billions of dollars at the behest of the ruling Communist Party.
Beijing wants to join the United States, Europe, and Japan in the ranks of technological superpowers to build its wealth and global influence. This offers opportunities for new inventions but also fuels tension with Washington and its allies, who see China as a strategic challenger.
Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving platform was launched in 2017, and the Apollo Go self-driving taxi service three years later.
Taxi service with a driver at the wheel to take over in an emergency started in 2020 and has expanded to Beijing, Shanghai, and eight other cities. Apollo Go says it made 213,000 rides in the last quarter of last year, doing it the busiest self-driving taxi service in the world.
For driverless rides with a supervisor in the passenger seat, Apollo Go started out in a 60-square-mile (23 square kilometers) area of Yizhuang, an industrial district on the southeastern outskirts of Beijing with wide streets and few cyclists or pedestrians.
“It’s very convenient,” said Zhao Hui, 43, who uses Baidu taxis in Yizhuang.
“It might feel a little safer” than a human driver, Zhao said. “Sometimes there are small objects, maybe some that people don’t notice. They can see them and stop them.”
Other developers include Deeproute.ai and AutoX in Shenzhen. Founded in 2016 and backed by venture capital, Pony.ai is testing self-driving cars and trailers on the road.
The industry’s plans are “very aggressive to deliver the robot-taxi to consumers,” said Owen Chen of S&P Global Mobility.
Automaker Geely, the owner of Volvo Cars, Lotus, and Polestar, has announced plans for satellite-connected autonomous vehicles. Network equipment maker Huawei Technologies Ltd. works on self-driving mining and industrial vehicles.
The ruling party promotes automation to support economic growth by making its shrinking, aging workforce more productive. The working-age population in China has fallen by 5% since its peak in 2011 and is expected to decline further.
“People are very expensive,” Wei says. “If this public service no longer needs people, the costs could come down quickly.”
As for whether China can lead the global industry, “there is currently a race,” said Pete Kelly, director of the automotive division of GlobalData Plc.
“But they could easily do this because of how decisions are made, and implementations are happening in China,” Kelly said.
McKinsey & Co. estimated China’s potential market for self-driving taxis, buses, trucks, and other equipment and software in the trillions of dollars in 2019.
Kelly said the first products are unlikely to recoup their development costs but could be “loss leaders” in selling other services.
Baidu says it already sells navigation and other technology to automakers. It projects total revenue of 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) based on agreements reached so far, Chairman Robin Li said in a conference call with reporters on May 26.
The company says it spent 24.9 billion yuan ($3.9 billion) on research and development last year but does not disclose how much of that went to autonomous vehicles. Baidu reported a profit of 10.2 billion yuan ($1.7 billion) on revenue of 124.5 billion yuan ($19.5 billion) last year.
Baidu and its most advanced rivals have reached level 4 out of five possible technology levels. That means their systems can operate without a driver but must be preloaded with a detailed map. That limits the area where they can use it.
Lower technology levels range from cruise control, a feature available for decades, to level 3, which allows hands-free driving on the highway. Self-propelled robot carts are widely used in factories, warehouses, and other tightly controlled environments.
Once self-driving taxis are on the road, operators will need to collect information about pedestrians and local conditions based on daily driving, a time-consuming process that will slow the rollout of the technology.
For a maneuver such as a U-turn, the Apollo system tracks as many as 200 vehicles, pedestrians, and other potential obstacles up to 100 meters (110 yards) away, Baidu said.
Wei said Baidu would like foreign partners to adapt its technology to their markets but has no plans to export yet as it targets Chinese cities.
Intersections are still a challenge, Wei said. Pedestrians in China are used to motorists gradually making their way through crowds on a crosswalk as they go for the green light, but a robot car can’t.
“Our car will always give in to people and eventually can’t get through the light,” Wei said.
Baidu has launched its self-driving car brand, JIDU, which unveiled a concept car this month. Li said the company will target the family car market priced above 200,000 yuan ($30,000).
The company also deals with three Chinese electric vehicle brands to produce cars with built-in computers, radar, and light-based sensors rather than bolted to the roof. Baidu says it is aiming for a sticker price of 480,000 yuan ($72,000) for its latest generation of taxis.
To encourage others to use Apollo, Baidu has made the platform open-source and says it has signed up 210 industry partners and 80,000 developers to create products based on it.
Apollo Go plans to expand its self-driving taxi service to 65 cities by 2025 and 100 by 2030.
Compared to a human driver, “the difference isn’t huge,” said Zhang Zhihua, 29, an interior designer who uses driverless Baidu taxis in Yizhuang. “If you’re not looking at the front and playing on your mobile phone, it feels exactly the same.”
AP video producers Caroline Chen and Wayne Zhang contributed to this report.