For the first time in China, people will be able to get a taxi ride without anyone behind the wheel.
Baidu (BIDU) and autonomous driving startup Pony.ai announced Thursday that they had won the country’s first permits to provide robotaxi ride-hailing services to the public. The permits do not require an operator to sit in the driver’s seat.
The services were introduced in Beijing on Thursday, and allow passengers to call for taxis using each company’s respective apps during daylight hours.
For now, each company will be restricted to a designated area of 23 square miles, and they will have to keep an operator in the front passenger seat to take over in case of emergencies. Currently, the programs are being offered for free to riders.
The announcement marks a big step forward for self-driving technology in the world’s largest car market.
Baidu is best known for its search engine but it also owns the largest autonomous driving fleet in China. It said it would start off with 10 vehicles under the program and add 30 more later.
Pony.ai, a fast-growing startup that was founded by former Baidu engineers in Fremont, California, said that as many as 300,000 residents in Beijing would be able to try out the experience. The company is backed by automakers including Toyota (TM), and was last valued at $8.5 billion.
China has become an important testing ground for autonomous vehicles, with a small pool of ambitious companies routinely notching new records on various fronts, such as removing the safety driver, opening up their services publicly or operating on public roads, and the number of miles their vehicles have been tested.
Baidu had previously been allowed to offer ride-hailing services in autonomous vehicles in several cities, including Beijing, though a human was still required to stay in the driver’s seat.
AutoX, another Chinese startup backed by Alibaba (BABA), also rolled out fully driverless robotaxis on public roads in Shenzhen in 2020. Its service requires members of the public to apply for the chance to be selected as passengers.