China’s Robotaxis Race Forward Amid Pandemic
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As their U.S. rivals sit idle, China's self-driving startups are looking to close the gap.
In March, as the leading self-driving car companies in the U.S. suspended testing because of the coronavirus, the Chinese startup AutoX accelerated its plans.
It opened potentially the largest data center for self-driving cars in Shanghai and signed a deal to launch a fleet of 100 robotaxis in the city.
AutoX is just one of several Chinese startups aiming to close the gap with Silicon Valley that have been rolling out pilot projects, racking up test miles and raising fresh funds as U.S. rivals sit idle.
“While players such as Waymo are halting their robotaxi pilots during the pandemic, over 30 companies are deploying autonomous delivery solutions in China,” says Bill Russo, founder of Shanghai-based consultancy Automobility.
We were lucky that we were not affected much [by COVID-19], because we have tons of cash right now.
Xiao Jianxiong, AutoX chief executive
The data provider PitchBook predicts that COVID-19 will hit investment in autonomous vehicles globally, and fuel a “significant shake-out” of smaller companies.
While investment in China has slowed since 2018, funding for the big companies has not dropped during the pandemic, says Zhang Nan, an analyst at research firm Iyiou.com.
“Companies in China being able to put robotaxis into operation now is a breakthrough, even if we cannot say for sure when this technology can be widely available,” says Zhang. “The robotaxi companies are on a special celebrity track and have already raised a lot of capital.”
That privileged position allowed AutoX to push ahead with its partnership with mapping company Amap to launch its fleet. “We were lucky that we were not affected much [by COVID-19], because we have tons of cash right now,” says the AutoX chief executive Xiao Jianxiong.
AutoX will be the first service in China allowed to drive up to the speed limit of 50 miles an hour, as well as being able to pick up and drop off passengers anywhere in the trial area of Jiading district, rather than at select stations.
Xiao notes that AutoX has won approval ahead of the ride-hailing leader Didi and that Shanghai has been conservative in handing out licenses. For now, the service has to be free for consumers and equipped with safety drivers. But he says he expects that cities will allow companies to charge for rides in the next two to three years.
Competition to develop robotaxis in China has intensified since last summer, when a handful of big Chinese cities began issuing “commercial” testing licenses for self-driving cars, allowing companies to start trying out future business ventures.
Alphabet’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise are still considered to be the clear industry leaders in terms of technology, but competition is fiercer in the U.S., which has about a dozen big robotaxi companies, compared with about half that number in China.
In the long run, China’s lack of a pervasive car-ownership culture, government support for self-driving cars and the sheer scale of the market could help it take the lead over the U.S., Xiao says. “Our goal is to win the China market first,” he says.
AutoX’s launch comes during a flurry of new announcements from Chinese self-driving startups. In the first four months of 2020, 10 Chinese autonomous driving companies secured new funding, according to Iyiou.com.
Companies are now ramping up road tests. Last week, WeRide.com, one of AutoX’s main competitors, said that its robotaxi fleet had now grown to 100 vehicles in operation in Guangzhou.
Tech giant Baidu in April formally launched a robotaxi service in Changsha, as part of its Apollo program.
Not all companies have been immune from the lasting impact of COVID-19 outside China. Baidu and startup Pony.ai both have a presence in the U.S., for research and testing.
Pony.ai — valued at over $3 billion after it raised $462 million in a round led by Toyota in February — has had to suspend testing in California since March, but by then the company had already resumed testing in China.
The access to China’s traffic data can be very useful for training its algorithms, Pony.ai chief executive James Peng said in March. “There are more motorcycles and pedestrians on the road. For a virtual driver to learn how to drive, it needs hard cases,” he said.
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