Autonomous taxis are being allowed to spend more time on the road as one tech giant is stepping up a gear.
Chinese search engine firm Baidu has branched out into the driverless taxi sector and has seen demand grow, collecting nearly 500,000 fares in three months in Wuhan, with its autonomous taxis operating from 9am to 5pm.
Riders use the company’s Apollo Go app to hail a cab and fares are charged at the same rate as conventional taxis with a driver.
One of the main reasons for limiting the hours in which the taxis could operate was safety as authorities wanted to avoid accidents happening at night.
But Baidu’ use of third-party cameras, radar and lidar to help its cars see better in low-visibility conditions has convinced authorities that it can operate safely in the dark and following the initial success, their taxis can now operate from 7am until 11pm without the need for ‘safety drivers’ behind the wheel.
TechCrunch reports that the additional hours mean the firm’s cabs can cover one-tenth of Wuhan’s 10 million population, although it points out that the figures should not be taken at face value.
It said that while Apollo Go had completed more than 474,000 rides – an increase of 311% year on year, it questions how many of these trips were subsidized by discounts typically introduced by start-ups. It is not unusual for a new business to offer discounts or perks to attract customers and time will tell whether the initial demand translates into sustainable, daily routes rather than one-off novelty cab ride.
TechCrunch also points out that it is difficult to tell which of China’s robotaxi startups is ahead of the field because expansion is entirely dependent on their relationship with the local city where the taxis operate.
But it acknowledges that there is plenty of room to grow in the sector and across China, there is a lot of support for autonomous cars in general.
Safety is obviously a major concern and Baidu is continuing to develop its technology so that it’s autonomous cars can identify new and unusual objects such as fire engines and plastic bags blowing in the wind without causing any problems.
Baidu said: “The model will enable autonomous vehicles to quickly make sense of an unseen object, such as special vehicle (fire truck, ambulance) recognition, plastic bag misdetection. In addition, Baidu’s autonomous driving perception model—a sub-model of the WenXin Big Model—leveraging more than 1 billion parameters, is able to dramatically improve the generalization potential of autonomous driving perception.”
But for taxi passengers, comfort and reassurance are also important and they have to believe that the technology will get them to their destination safely. As we mentioned in a previous article, no one wants to get out of a cab feeling as if they have been in a rollercoaster, however safe and precise the technology might be.
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