Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is often compared to Google. And just as Google has spun off Waymo to commercialize self-driving technology, so Baidu is developing self-driving technology of its own. On Thursday, the Chinese search giant announced the launch of what it is calling China’s first paid autonomous vehicle service, known as Apollo Go.
Arguably, the service is better described as a shuttle service than a taxi service. Customers get picked up and dropped off from one of eight predefined stations. The initial service area is 2.7 square kilometers—a little over one square mile. The longest route in the network is 5 km (3 miles). That makes the service a lot smaller than the Waymo One taxi service in Phoenix, which has a service area of around 50 square miles.
Still, there’s little doubt that Baidu is one of China’s leading self-driving companies—and that China is the world’s No. 2 market for self-driving technology after the United States. In total, Baidu is testing fully driverless vehicles in three Chinese cities and is testing its technology with safety drivers in more than two dozen cities. Baidu has even gotten permission to test fully driverless vehicles near its Silicon Valley offices in Sunnyvale.
Another Chinese company, AutoX, has been testing fully driverless vehicles in Shenzhen since December. The service has been open to select members of the public since January, though AutoX hasn’t started charging for rides. Several other Chinese companies are working on self-driving technology.
After years of under-performing expectations, several American self-driving companies say they’re on the verge of launching fully driverless commercial services:
- Waymo has stepped up testing in San Francisco in preparation for a launch there.
- Cruise, a startup backed by GM, Honda, and several other investors, is aiming to launch fully driverless taxi services in San Francisco and Dubai by 2023.
- Mobileye, an Israeli company owned by Intel, says it’s on track to launch fully driverless taxi services in multiple cities in 2023.
- Motional, a self-driving venture backed by Hyundai and auto-parts giant Aptiv, has started driverless tests in the Las Vegas area.
So far, US policymakers have largely taken a hands-off approach to the technology. There are very few regulations of autonomous vehicles at the federal level. States have taken a variety of approaches, with California having stricter rules than states like Arizona and Texas. The prospect of robust competition from China may help autonomous vehicle companies convince US policymakers not to pass regulations that could slow development of the technology in the US.