Baidu’s Apollo Go robotaxi, on the right, operates in the Yizhuang suburban district of Beijing alongside Pony.ai’s version. The two vehicles are pictured here in November 2021 shortly after Beijing allowed the companies to charge fares.
Vcg | Visual China Group | Getty Images
BEIJING — China’s capital city is taking swift steps to allow robotaxi businesses to grow.
As of Tuesday, the suburban Beijing city district of Yizhuang is officially letting local robotaxi operators — primarily Baidu and startup Pony.ai — charge fares for fully autonomous taxis, with no human staff inside.
That fully eliminates the cost of a driver. Previously, commercial public-facing robotaxis were required to have an employee to sit inside with the passenger. Yizhuang district is about half an hour’s drive from downtown Beijing and is home to corporations such as JD.com.
More approvals for robotaxi operations in the city are coming, said Ning Zhang, vice president at Pony.ai and head of its Beijing research and development center.
“We have very high confidence … maybe only in three years, our full driverless vehicles are going to be running over the whole Beijing city,” he said in an interview with CNBC on Monday.
Citing conversations with Beijing’s mayor, Zhang said that by the end of the year, the city aims to expand robotaxi testing areas to Daxing International Airport and around one train station.
In July, Beijing Mayor Yin Yong met separately with Pony.ai, Alibaba and Xiaomi to encourage their work in connected cars, artificial intelligence and other advanced tech. That’s according to a state media report republished by Pony.ai on its official WeChat account.
The city has also previously announced general plans to increase the testing area for robotaxis.
Less than two years ago, in November 2021, Beijing city allowed the robotaxi operators to collect fares for public-facing rides, a first step toward eliminating the cost of the driver. People can book highly subsidized robotaxi rides from Baidu and Pony.ai in Yizhuang district via the companies’ apps.
Out of more than 200 robotaxis that Pony.ai operates in the region, only about ten are currently fully driverless, Zhang said. He noted that Beijing city considers seven factors in a phased process of allowing public robotaxi operation, including which seat the safety driver is sitting in and whether the car is being used for testing or for commercial operation.
After initial testing, Zhang expects fully driverless robotaxis…