Latest series with Level 4 autonomous driving to serve as robotaxis in 2023
An Apollo RT6 is seen during the launch ceremony in Beijing on Thursday. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Chinese tech giant Baidu Inc unveiled its next-generation fully autonomous vehicle Apollo RT6 on Thursday, which will be put into operation on Apollo Go, the company's autonomous ride-hailing service, in 2023, a move expected to accelerate the large-scale commercialization of self-driving technology, industry experts said.
Designed for complex urban environments, the Apollo RT6 is a fully electric vehicle with a steering wheel that can be removed or installed when required, according to Baidu. With a per unit cost of 250,000 yuan ($36,975), the arrival of the new model is set to speed up the commercial operation of self-driving taxis at scale.
"This massive cost reduction will enable us to deploy tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles across China. We are moving towards a future where taking a robotaxi will be half the cost of taking a taxi today," said Robin Li, co-founder and CEO of Baidu, at Baidu World 2022, the company's flagship technology conference, in Beijing.
As Baidu's 6th generation of autonomous vehicles, the Apollo RT6 is powered by a Level 4 autonomous driving system and automotive-grade dual computing units with a computing power of up to 1,200 tera operations per second (TOPS). Level 4 autonomy means the vehicle can drive by itself under most circumstances without a human backup driver.
The steering wheel-free design allows more space for the installation of extra seating or other additions, even a gaming console or vending machine, the company said.
So far, Apollo Go has rolled out robotaxi ride-hailing services in 10 cities in China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province, and received more than 1 million orders, making Baidu the world's largest autonomous mobility service provider.
The intelligent transportation infrastructure based on the vehicle-road coordination system is expected to improve traffic efficiency by 15 to 30 percent and contribute to 2.4 percent to 4.8 percent of absolute GDP growth, Li said. Baidu's intelligent transportation solutions have been adopted in more than 50 cities nationwide.
Zhang Xiang, a researcher at the Automobile Industry Innovation Research Center at the North China University of Technology in Beijing, said there are some highlights and innovations in the newly launched driverless vehicle, such as the highly autonomous driving system, lidar sensors, high-performance auto chips and detachable steering wheels.
Baidu has accelerated its steps in the vehicle-to-everything infrastructure construction across the nation to promote the commercialization of autonomous driving technologies, Zhang said. V2X is a key technology that allows vehicles to communicate with the moving parts of the traffic system around them.
Beijing officially launched China's first pilot area for commercial autonomous driving vehicle services on Wednesday. Baidu and self-driving startup Pony.ai are the first batches of enterprises granted permission to offer paid services.
They will also provide up to 30 self-driving vehicles without a safety operator behind the steering wheel for commercial services within an area of 60 square kilometers in Yizhuang, a southern suburb of Beijing. A supervisor will sit in the front passenger seat to ensure safety. In April, the two companies received permits to operate driverless taxis on open roads in Beijing.
"China is catching up with the United States in autonomous driving development with the progress made by Baidu and Pony.ai. In the US, only Alphabet-backed Waymo and General Motors-backed Cruise can offer driverless rides and charge for such services in Arizona and California, respectively," said Lyu Jinghong, an intelligent mobility analyst at research firm BloombergNEF.
Continuous testing on public roads, easing regulations as well as cost reductions in autonomous vehicle manufacturing will help accelerate the deployment and commercialization of self-driving cars, Lyu said.
According to BloombergNEF's 2022 electric vehicle outlook, China will operate the world's largest robotaxi fleet with about 12 million units by 2040, followed by the US which operates around 7 million autonomous vehicles.
As autonomous driving technology continues to mature, the sector is poised to witness robust growth in the coming years. The market size of China's self-driving taxi services is expected to surpass 1.3 trillion yuan by 2030, accounting for 60 percent of the country's ride-hailing market by then, said a report by global consultancy IHS Markit.
The report said the robotaxi market will eventually be dominated by two to three major service providers, with the top providers occupying more than 40 percent of total market share.