Chinese internet giant Baidu and autonomous vehicle company Pony.ai have received permits to provide driverless ride-hailing services to the public on open roads in Beijing, according to both companies.
To date, numerous cities in China have allowed autonomous vehicle companies to test self-driving vehicles without a human safety operator in the driver's seat, but this is the first time companies are allowed to run a fully driverless service. That said, the permit does require the companies to have a safety operator present in the front passenger seat, so the regulation is not quite as mature as, say, California's driverless permits that require no human in the vehicle aside from the passenger.
Neither Pony nor Baidu will be charging a fee for driverless rides yet, although both companies are currently running commercial services with drivered robotaxis in Yizhuang, Beijing, otherwise referred to as Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD), according to a Baidu spokesperson. This 60-square-kilometer stretch of Beijing, home to about 300,000 residents, is also where both Baidu's and Pony's driverless service will run.
The news comes a couple of days after Pony scored a taxi license to operate and charge for autonomous ride-hail in Guangzhou, which requires a safety operator to be in the driver's seat.
China is home to many AV companies that are chasing commercialization, and it's clear from both Baidu's and Pony's milestones that the country is moving forward with regulation to bring autonomous technology to market.
The permits issued by the head office of BJHAD allow Baidu to deploy 10 driverless vehicles in Beijing, which will join Baidu's existing Apollo Go fleet of about 100 cars in the capital city starting Thursday. The company said it plans to add 30 more driverless vehicles "at a later stage."
Pony's service will also begin on Thursday with four driverless vehicles, but the company said it hopes to expand in the future.
Apollo Go users can hail a ride using the app from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Pony customers can use the startup's PonyPilot+ app to hail a ride from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be hundreds of pickup and drop-off locations in the area including subway stations, parks, stadiums, central business districts and residential areas, according to Pony.