China’s autonomous driving businesses are competing to get passengers into their self-driving cars. Every few weeks, another major player receives approval to begin a new pilot program or a small-scale business. These press statements, which are frequently peppered with regulatory jargon and flowery language to extol the companies’ achievements, can be perplexing.
That’s why we compiled this essay evaluating the progress of China’s top robotaxi operators in 2021 – AutoX, Baidu, Deeproute.ai, Didi, Momenta, Pony.ai, and WeRide — as well as attempting to decipher what their announcements actually signify. Because most of the major firms have been testing drivered (autonomous vehicles with in-car safety operators) and driverless vehicles in China for some time, this post will focus on their regular public-facing services.
While managing the costs, safety, and regulations associated with robotaxis, these businesses have dabbled in sectors that are easier to scale, such as self-driving trucks, goods-hauling vans, and city buses, though robotaxis remains their long-term emphasis. There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to China’s autonomous driving arena. Before we get started, there are a few circumstances that are unique to China’s autonomous car industry.
The state of the country’s roads varies substantially. For example, an autonomous driving test conducted in a suburban Shenzhen industrial park will experience far less traffic than one conducted in a meandering urban hamlet downtown. Regulations on autonomous vehicles might vary significantly between provinces — and even within the same city. A business that gets permission to operate a fully autonomous test in one place not necessarily more technologically sophisticated than its competitors are; it could simply indicate it has a friendly relationship with a local regulator who is pro-self-driving.
As part of their growth strategy, certain regional governments are focusing on smart mobility. Naturally, they are enthusiastic about assisting autonomous car start-ups. Before national or city-level legislation is enacted, authorities may grant an informal sanction to unmanned driving tests in their territories. Tax rebates, access to advantageous land use, and low-cost office space are all examples of government help. That is why Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Suzhou are home to the majority of China’s top autonomous car firms.
In China, local governments frequently establish pilot zones to encourage the development of innovative technology such as self-driving cars. These kinds of initiatives allow businesses to experiment without the traditional legal restraints that hold back more mature industries. As of now, no Chinese city has awarded a permit for driverless robotaxis, which would allow an autonomous car to carry people without the need for a safety operator, as Waymo and Cruise do in San Francisco. A few localities have approved completely autonomous driving experiments on public highways.