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Baidu Wins Licence to Operate Driverless Taxis in Shenzhen

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China’s tech firm Baidu Inc said on Friday that it had obtained a license from regulators to offer driverless ride-hailing services in Shenzhen. In this fourth city, its robot axis operates. Under the brand Apollo Go, the company’s fleet of robot axis will be allowed to operate across an area of 188 square kilometers in Shenzhen. The company also plans to put an additional 200 fully driverless robotaxis into service this year.

The Shenzhen license marks the first time Baidu’s robot taxis will operate in a downtown area of a Chinese city. Until now, the vehicles have only been used in suburban areas. In a statement, the search engine giant said it believes the Shenzhen operation “marks an important milestone on the road to reaching the inflection point” for fully autonomous cars.

Its fleet of self-driving taxis, which charge at taxi rates, has given more than a million rides since it began operations in 2020. Baidu says its RT6 model, used for the Shenzhen operation, can drive safely on open roads without a safe driver in the vehicle. The company said the new vehicle can handle a wide range of road conditions, including traffic jams and construction sites. Its production costs are about half that of previous models, a major cost-reducing factor in the quest for mass commercialization of the technology.

China is speeding up introducing self-driving cars and has already approved more than a dozen companies to test them on public roads. The Shenzhen move follows a decision by local governments in Wuhan and Chongqing to grant the country’s first permits allowing fares for fully driverless taxi services, excluding a human operator in the car, to be charged in designated areas.

In January, General Motors Corp’s Cruise received a permit from US regulators to charge for fully driverless trips in selected streets of San Francisco. In China, the government has outlined draft guidelines on using autonomous vehicles for public transportation.

The Shenzhen pilot comes as Baidu faces intense competition from rivals such as Uber Technologies Inc and Weibo Corp, which have been granted similar licenses to run driverless taxis in China. Weibo has also partnered with a local bus company to offer 100 driverless buses.

According to Baidu, a typical ride in a fully driverless Apollo Go taxi will cost passengers about 1.6 yuan ($0.23) for a trip of less than a kilometer. That’s a fraction of the price of taking a conventional taxi in China’s largest cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Baidu, the world’s second-largest search engine, is transitioning to artificial intelligence and self-driving technology as its core advertising business slows in the mobile era. The company has been investing heavily in its smart-driving unit, which provides software to automakers such as Geely Automobile Holding Ltd and runs a fleet of driverless cars in cities like Beijing. It hopes the technology will help it compete with online giants such as Google Inc and Facebook Inc for ad revenue from the fast-growing digital economy.

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