Beijing approves nation's 1st driverless robotaxi permits

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An autonomous vehicle (1st R) is in driverless test on a road in Yizhuang of Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 19, 2021. [Photo/Xinhua]

Beijing granted China's first autonomous driving permits to two robotaxi operators-Baidu Inc and Thursday that for the first time allows the removal of a safety operator from the driver's seat on public roads in the capital.

Industry experts said the move marks a significant milestone for the autonomous ride-hailing industry in China, indicating a regulatory openness to taking a further step toward a fully driverless vehicle.

With the permits issued by the head office of the Beijing High-Level Automated Driving Demonstration Area, 14 autonomous vehicles without a safety operator behind the steering wheel can carry passengers in a designated area of 60 square kilometers in Yizhuang, a southern suburb of Beijing. A safety supervisor will sit in the front passenger seat to ensure safety.

Since Thursday, users can hail a driverless robotaxi using the Apollo Go mobile app from 10 am to 4 pm free of charge, Baidu said. It plans to add 30 more such vehicles and expand its fleet to provide more convenient driverless services to the public.

The fully driverless robotaxi, where there is no safety driver in the autonomous driving vehicle, is expected to hit the road within six months, said Wei Dong, vice-president and chief safety operation officer of Baidu Intelligent Driving Business Group. Wei added that the company is concentrating on expanding its commercial robotaxi pilot services in first- and second-tier cities at an early stage.

The robotaxi service provided by covers hundreds of pick-up and drop-off locations, including subway stations, parks, stadiums, commercial buildings and residential areas, the company said.

"The approval to operate driverless robotaxis in Beijing is a critical milestone in the transition from testing driverless autonomous vehicles to offering driverless robotaxi rides to public passengers," said Peng Jun, co-founder and CEO of

The permits are the latest approvals Beijing authorities have granted to the two companies, which were allowed to test their autonomous vehicles with a safety driver behind the steering wheel in some areas of the city. In November, the two companies received approval to start charging fares for robotaxi services in Beijing.

The permit is of great significance in accelerating the large-scale commercialization of autonomous driving technology in China, said Zhang Xiang, a researcher at the Automobile Industry Innovation Research Center, which is part of North China University of Technology in Beijing.

Beijing is taking the lead in bolstering the development of commercialized autonomous driving in China, Zhang said, adding that other first-tier cities, such as Shanghai and Guangdong province's Guangzhou and Shenzhen, might follow Beijing and allow autonomous vehicles to carry passengers without a safety operator in the driver's seat in the near future.

The move will help autonomous driving enterprises accumulate more testing experience of the driverless mode, said Lyu Jinghong, an intelligent mobility analyst at research firm BloombergNEF, adding that more tests are required to realize the goal of fully autonomous driving.

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