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Driverless Taxis Approved in China

Beijing has granted the country’s first permits to two of China’s foremost autonomous taxi operators. The move marks the first time China’s government has allowed self-driving cars, dubbed robotaxis, to carry passengers without a safety operator behind the wheel. Permits issued by the Beijing government allow 14 of these robotaxis to operate in a duly-approved area in Yizhuang (Southern Beijing) that’s about 60 square kilometres.

Technology-wise, it’s still a long way from being fully autonomous but China’s robotaxis are definitely headed in the right direction. In what could be a first for the ride-hailing segment, the Beijing government is giving permits to taxis that run without a driver behind the steering wheel leading the way forward for the country’s other cities.

Industry observers feel that Beijing is just the start. Autonomous driving for commercial purposes should be available in China’s biggest cities such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai, and from there to other metropolitan areas.

Driverless vehicles are not a first in the streets of the biggest cities of the country. The Asian nation has already fielded driverless cars that are capable of parking themselves. Additionally, e-commerce companies have utilised self-driving delivery vehicles to serve consumers. However, Beijing’s recent move is the first time a self-driving vehicle can be hailed by the riding public. These vehicles have been used to augment deliveries in Shanghai during the recent COVID-19 related lockdowns.

Although driverless, these robotaxis will have one safety supervisor sitting at the front passenger seat to make sure safety is observed at all times.  Next-level driverless taxis where no safety officers are sitting upfront will soon be available in about six months’ time. Said company is focused on expanding its current robotaxi fleet.

The technology could be adopted by the public rapidly. One of China’s biggest technology companies granted a permit to offer free rides on their robotaxis from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Moreover, the company is looking forward to field 30 more robotaxis in the near future.

The robotaxis of the other company got a permit to cover hundreds of locations for pick-up and drop-off. That includes commercial buildings, subway stations, stadiums and even residential areas.

In 2014, the International Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) categorised self-driving cars according to the level of autonomy that the vehicle can give during its on-road operation. Level 5 is the most sophisticated and it’s where all a rider has to do is give a destination and the vehicle will him there no matter the terrain.

China’s digital transformation has allowed it to field sophisticated vehicles. Still, there is a long way to go before a level 5 self-driving car will hit the roads of China. To note, an autonomous vehicle processes tons of information while on the road. It has all sorts of sensors and it uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to ensure the proper response.

One of the most widely used sensors is the Lidar, short for light detecting and ranging, a device that shoots a volley of infrared laser light into the car’s surroundings. The car is then able to calculate the presence of obstacles by looking at how these laser beams bounce back.

Digital adoption is central to China’s economic rise. In accordance with all the benefits digitalisation has brought to the table, the country is set to increase its digital economy by as much as 10% by 2025 as reported on OpenGov Asia.

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