China’s robotaxi services an important first step in building smart transportation, says Chinese ministry

Che Pan
·3-min read

China’s transport ministry backed autonomous driving as an essential part in building a nationwide smart transport system and said it encourages cities and companies to roll out pilot programmes including robotaxis and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) systems.

“We support cities and autonomous driving companies to accelerate the development and application of autonomous driving technology under the premise of ensuring safety,” Wu Chungeng, policy research director at the Chinese Ministry of Transport, said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“We supported Beijing, Shanghai and Hebei in carrying out pilot projects on smart transportation such as autonomous driving and vehicle-to-everything,” Wu said, referring to the V2X vehicular communication system that supports high speed transfer of data between cars and subsystems in the traffic ecosystem.

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Wu said the transport ministry and the Ministry of Science and Technology were cooperating to identify research and development tasks required for autonomous driving and V2X as part of deliberations ahead of China’s 14th five-year plan which will outline the country’s long-term objectives through to 2035.

The ministry’s backing comes as the promise of a driverless future has attracted billions of dollars of investment globally, making it one of the key sectors in the field of artificial intelligence, an industry where both China and the US are seeking supremacy.

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In May Chinese transport minister Li Xiaopeng said autonomous driving would usher in new business models for the transport industry, reducing traffic pollution and increasing commute efficiency.

Chinese self-driving companies such as Baidu, Didi Chuxing, WeRide and AutoX have all launched robotaxi services in different cities, offering commuters free rides in designated areas. In September, Baidu Apollo launched robotaxis on public roads in Beijing, making it the third city to get the service after Changsha in Hunan province and Cangzhou in Hebei.

In 2018 Guangzhou became the first Chinese city to grant a permit for robotaxis on open roads. However, due to the immature nature of the technology and China’s often complex real-world traffic environment, transport authorities still require a human safety driver on board in case of emergency.

Wu said the robotaxi services launched by Baidu and other autonomous driving companies were “running well” after being approved by local governments and that they acted as a trial for autonomous driving technologies in real-world traffic conditions.

Although robotaxis are seen as having the best prospects for commercialisation of self-driving technology, the key industry players are struggling to make profits. The current crop of services offer free rides but are in designated areas that are usually far from city centres.

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