Beijing is paving the way for driverless robotaxis. China’s capital city granted permits to auto startup and Chinese internet giant to offer self-driving car services to the general public, both companies announced today. Both operations will start out small — Baidu’s fleet will consist of 10 cars and Pony.ai will run four cars, CNBC. Eventually both companies plan to expand operations in the city.
The Beijing government is requiring a staff member to be onboard each driverless vehicle to make sure things go smoothly. But the employee isn’t required to be in the driver’s seat. Both firms had already been testing driverless taxis in and other major cities in China, but were required to have safety drivers behind the wheel.
An added perk for Beijing residents is that driverless car rides will be free, at least for now. The companies are still awaiting approval from the government to charge for the service. Until then, prospective riders can hail a ride through either Pony.ai’s PonyPilot+ app or Baidu’s app. There’s one caveat, though. Rides are currently restricted to a 23.1 square mile area in Yizhuang, a suburb of Beijing. There’s also no door-to-door pick-up service. Riders will instead be asked to choose from a number of public pick-up and drop-off locations, including subway stations, parks and stadiums.
Pony.ai ran into a number of challenges while testing its self-driving technology in the US. California suspended the Chinese company’s testing permit last year after a due to a glitch in Pony.ai’s AV software. No people were harmed in the crash and no other vehicles were involved. The California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a of all vehicles involved in the crash, which Pony.ai has complied with.