Local authorities in Shanghai last week have issued licenses – the first in China – for operational tests of smart and connected cars with passengers in them, that would pave the way for commercial robotaxis in the future.
The licenses were given to car-hailing ride service Didi Chuxing as well as to car manufacturer SAIC Motor and BMW that allow them to conduct autonomous driving projects in real urban scenarios in Shanghai’s Jiading district, local government officials announced at last week’s World Autonomous Vehicle Ecosystem Conference.
Each of the three companies are permitted to run 50 vehicles for pilot programs including robotaxis, unmanned deliveries and other autonomous driving services. The license holders can increase the number of test vehicles after six months if there are no traffic violations.
The city issued China’s first licenses on autonomous vehicle (AV) tests to SAIC and EV maker Nio in March 2018, with only company employees allowed to ride in the vehicles during tests. In this round of licenses, vehicles will be allowed to carry passengers and to transport goods. A driver will be onboard to take over if needed. The rides will be free for qualified passengers aged 18 to 70, for whom service providers are required to offer insurance.
Ramping up autonomous driving efforts
To date, Shanghai has opened 53.6 kilometres of roads to self-driving cars are in a designated area about around one-sixth the size of Jiading district, a total area of 65 square kilometres. Furthermore, the test library of urban scenarios has been increased nearly five-fold to 1,580, including navigating in industrial zones, business centres, residential areas, and subway stations.
"China has the most complicated traffic scenarios in the world, so the BMW Group's automated driving R&D in China has become an important part of autonomous driving development worldwide," the German carmaker said in a statement.
BMW has set up autonomous driving R&D teams in Shanghai and Beijing, composed of nearly 100 engineers. They focus on the development and validation of automated driving function based on typical traffic scenarios in China.
Meanwhile, Didi is speeding up its efforts in autonomous driving. The car-hailing giant told Reuters in late August that it plans to start using self-driving vehicles to pick up passengers in Shanghai's Jiading district within months.
The service will allow passengers who hail a vehicle in the district via Didi's app to choose whether to be picked up by a self-driving car, according to Zhang Bo, the firm's chief executive officer.
Didi hopes to run robotaxis in three Chinese cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, by 2020 and intends to launch the service outside the country in the following year, Zhang said.
Earlier this month, Didi had spun off its autonomous driving unit into an independent company that will focus on research and seek to deepen collaboration with automakers.
China’s big potential in the autonomous vehicles market
Consulting firm McKinsey said China has the potential to become the world's largest market for autonomous vehicles, which will steer the country's automotive industry into the passing lane.
It estimated that the mass adoption of highly autonomous vehicles in China will start around 2027 and they could account for 66 percent of the passenger-kilometres travelled in 2040, generating market revenue of $1.1 trillion from mobility services.
Of new vehicles sold in the year, autonomous vehicles will make up more than 40 percent, said McKinsey.