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Convenience and Safety: Key Concerns Behind Hot Robotaxi丨In Depth

By KENNY DONGICHONGQING|Sep 18,2022

Chongqing- As Baidu Apollo successfully launched an autonomous ride-hailing robotaxi service in Yongchuan District, Chongqing, many issues, such as convenience and safety, play a key in fostering the informatization and intelligence of transportation.

The reporter The photo was taken from another car and the unmanned driver’s seat was clear while the car was on the road. (Photo provided to iChongqing)

People are guessing why many autonomous driving companies accelerate pushing the commercial service operation. Some think it is the cooling expectation from investors who urge them to earn; some think autonomous driving is still a hot field in which bold actions might attract more significant investments.

Folks in Yongchuan District, Chongqing, now share the geographical preference to try the newest autonomous ride service since Baidu announced the commercial operation of its autonomous ride app Apollo Go there earlier in August.

In Yongchuan District, dozens of fixed destination points are set for the Apollo taxis to pick up and take off the passengers, covering almost all busy areas downtown. Users can download the ride app “Apollo Go” (“萝卜快跑” in Chinese) which is used just like Didi or Uber and Lyft to make their trip, except that in the current stage, they can’t choose the pick-up and take-off points freely.

There are two concerns we think are interesting to know.

Maintaining the low manual cost for an autonomous ride

Taking a 3.2-kilometer long ride by an Apollo Go car charged 2.52 yuan from the Palace Above, a local community, to the People’s Hospital of Yongchuan District. An iChongqing reporter tried the same trip with Didi, and it charged 7.23 yuan at its cheapest option.

The reporter also noticed that the 2.52 yuan charge was the price after a “special discount.” In the charge detail, the start fee was marked as 16 yuan, and the distance fee was 9.24 yuan. If the service operated at the original price in the future, it would be the most expensive riding service that surpasses some premium riding services offered by Didi Luxe.

But according to Robin Li, Baidu’s CEO, who delivered a speech earlier in 2022 Baidu World, the ultimate realization of autonomous riding shall reduce the customer’s costs as the operating costs of an autonomous car would go down. However, he didn’t elaborate on how Baidu would push that.

The manual cost accounts for about 50% of a riding cost, according to a report released by China EV100, an academic association of China’s auto industry. It is easy to imagine how an autonomous ride will reduce customers’ payments.

In Baidu’s own words, they have achieved L4 autonomous driving technology, which requires no driver or safety officer inside the car. But at the scene, the reporter also noticed that Baidu Apollo hired several safety officers sitting in a 5G remote control station.

Their job is to monitor the car’s road condition through the screen as a temporary measure for the company to ensure the stability of commercial operation. The challenge for the company is maintaining low manual labor so the riding cost can decrease.

A remote control station is set in Baidu Apollo Go’s hub in Yongchuan District. It displays the 5G intelligent connection ability of their autonomous driving system. On the other hand, safety officers sit here to ensure their cars’ operation. (iChongqing/Kenny Dong)

Other than manual labor, autonomous driving hardware is another key add-item to the cost since producing an autonomous car is a lot more expensive than a normal car by its high-quality chips, sensors, and other parts. 

The fifth generation of Baidu Apollo’s autonomous car is worth 480,000 yuan. If calculated by five years (the time that a commercial car averagely operates), the monthly cost will be 8,000 yuan.

Baidu is accelerating its whole-vehicle development. This July, the company released a new model Apollo RT6 that only takes about 250,000 yuan to produce, down by nearly 50%. The cost can be further lowered as the technics improve.

Safety is the ultimate issue that every passenger cares about

Regarding safety, we are talking about driving safety and legal liability.

The law problem is being solved on the national level. Shenzhen is the first Chinese city to roll out complete regulations for intelligent connected vehicles, allowing autonomous cars to operate unmanned. Shenzhen also demands that each autonomous vehicle should be assigned to an owner or a supervisor, who will be liable for any accidents that happen to the car. The regulations will gradually be promoted to the rest of China.

Even if there is a legal foundation, the customers worry about the actual safe performance in driving. To that, Baidu gave a very confident response.

Ruan Tingchuan, City Manager of Baidu Apollo Go, said customers should feel safe about taking an Apollo Go car. The company has taken nine years to test its autonomous driving, with a test range of about 32 million kilometers.

“We insist on single-car autonomous driving, monitoring redundancy, and parallel driving to build our safety system,” said Ruan.

Monitoring redundancy refers to an independent reporting system that can reliably transmit parallel alarms to the control system even if the main reporting system breaks. The parallel driving in Baidu Apollo’s case has a 5G remote control system to take over driving while incidents happen.

For now, in every city that conducts the commercial operation of autonomous riding, the area is restricted, which relatively lowers the risk.

China’s administration is cautiously issuing more licenses to autonomous riding companies. In other words, the full commercial operation stage is yet to come, but now we have something that can be called true autonomous riding in the country.

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