Baidu Starts Robot Taxi Business Following Beijing Fares Approval

A security officer boarding a self-driving robotic taxi on October 13, 2020 in Beijing, China, a few days after Baidu began trial operation of its Apollo robotic taxi.

Zhao Jing | Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING – Baidu may begin collecting fares for robotic taxis in parts of Beijing from Thursday, Chinese tech giant CNBC said this week, a major step towards growing its driverless taxi business.

Regulatory approval to support robotic taxis in China was obtained as local governments in the United States moved in the same direction.

However, moving to Beijing city carries additional weight.

The approval from the capital of China is the first time that such a large city in the country allows companies to charge the public for travel by robotaxi. “This sets the stage for other cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen to do the same,” Wei Dong, vice president and chief of security for Baidu’s Intelligent Driving Group, told CNBC.

He expects these cities to become operational late this year or early next year.

How much is it?

Beginning Thursday, Baidu Apollo’s robotaxi business could collect fares from passengers for one of 67 self-driving cars in Beijing’s Yizhuang suburban area.

While the company did not disclose exact pricing, it said the fares would be comparable to premium call charges available through apps such as Didi, which can cost twice as much as regular attractions.

Baidu has been offering free robo taxi rides to Yizhuang from October 2020. As of Wednesday, the Luobo Kuipao-branded robotic taxi app showed an approximate fare of 34 yuan (US $ 5.31) for the 3-kilometer (1.86 miles) trip from Sam’s Club in Yizhuang to the nearest metro station.

The same route costs about RMB 14 ($ 2.19) via Didi’s basic express car service. Didi’s approximate premium fare for the same route is RMB 27.

So far, the novelty of the free self-driving taxi has attracted a number of regular users to Yizhuang. Wei said that more than 20,000 users make at least 10 trips every month. It is unclear how many of them will continue to use the service when they have to pay for it, but Wei aims to check an additional 100 robotaxi vehicles each year.

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On the consumer side, Wei said Apollo will focus on ways to provide the user with an experience that goes beyond a simple mode of transportation – for example, displaying the streets of Beijing 20 years ago on car windows instead of the current street view.

Another strategy, he said, is to find ways to use robotaxi for non-profit functions such as a treatment facility or a public library.

While Apollo is only a small fraction of Baidu, its development is in line with the CEO’s efforts to convince investors that the company’s broader future lies in artificial intelligence and related areas such as autonomous driving.

The company’s fastest growing revenue in the third quarter was “non-online marketing revenue,” which grew 76% year-over-year to 5.2 billion yuan ($ 806 million). Baidu attributed the rise to demand for cloud computing and other AI-related areas.

– CNBC Arjun Harpal contributed to this report.

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