BEIJING — China’s capital city has moved one step closer toward letting ordinary people take robotaxis with no driver in them.
In a first for the country, two Chinese companies — Baidu‘s Apollo Go and Pony.ai — announced Thursday they received permission from Beijing city authorities to remove the safety driver for part of their robotaxi business in a suburban part of the city.
The cars will still need a staff member to sit inside, but not necessarily in the driver’s seat anymore.
It’s a move toward letting the companies run a robotaxi business without having to pay for staff to man the cars — fully eliminating the cost of a taxi driver. It remains unclear when the Chinese government would allow robotaxis to charge fares for rides without any human staff in the cars.
In the U.S., Alphabet’s Waymo and GM’s subsidiary Cruise can already run public robotaxis with no human staff in the vehicles. Laws for testing robotaxis and charging riders vary by city and state.
Waymo can charge customers for its robotaxis that operate in Arizona, while Cruise is waiting for approval on a final permit to charge riders in San Francisco.
Tu Le, founder of Beijing-based advisory firm Sino Auto Insights, pointed out that GM’s Cruise can only operate its driverless robotaxi service in San Francisco at night, while the latest loosening of restrictions in Beijing allows the nearly driverless robotaxis to operate during the day.
That would allow the Chinese operators to collect more data during higher-traffic periods.
Under Beijing city’s new permit, Baidu said it can operate 10 robotaxis without safety drivers, and plans to add 30 more such vehicles at an unspecified later date.
Pony.ai can initially operate four robotaxis without safety drivers under the new rules, and expects to add more in the future, a spokesperson said.
Beijing authorities in the suburban Yizhuang district confirmed Baidu and Pony.ai received the new robotaxi approvals in a press conference Thursday. The government added the operational area tripled to the equivalent of about 23 square miles.
A busy six months for China robotaxi rule changes
Rules for testing and operating robotaxis also vary by region in China.
Beijing city’s latest move comes less than six months since the municipality allowed Baidu and Pony.ai to charge fees for robotaxis in the suburban district of Yizhuang. The approval to charge fares was the first by a major city in China.
Baidu said its Apollo Go robotaxi business subsequently began to charge fares in the municipality of Chongqing in southwestern China and a smaller, central China city of Yangquan in February. The cars still require a safety driver.
On Sunday, the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou gave Pony.ai’s tech-powered robotaxis the same designation as traditional taxis — the first such license in China. The license lets Pony.ai charge fares in the district. The cars currently have safety drivers.
— CNBC’s Michael Wayland contributed to this report.