Shenzhen accelerates China’s driverless car dreams

SHENZHEN, China, Aug 1 (Reuters) – Three delivery bikes suddenly crashed into a pedestrian crossing in front of a car on a busy city street. On the dashboard of a car they look like little 3D blue blocks from a 1990s video game.

The steering wheel itself turns a notch and the vehicle slows to a halt while the safety driver watches from the passenger seat.

The vehicle is one of a hundred sensor-laden robotaxis belonging to DeepRoot.AI, providing 50,000 test rides to passengers in the past year, cruising the dense central Futian business district in Shenzhen, China’s southern tech hub.

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While the United States is regarded as an early lead in the testing of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, the industry in Shenzhen is changing gears, with testing robotaxis rapidly becoming a common sight.

Baidu Inc.’s Apollo unit, the Toyota Motor Corp.-backed Pony, the Nissan-backed Vyride, Alibaba-backed Auto X and DeProut are all running tests to navigate the tough city environment, which often features Jaywalkers and the ubiquitous e-scooters. .

Shenzhen, a city of 18 million, has now brought China’s clearest AV regulations. From Monday, registered AVs will be allowed to operate without a driver in the driving seat in a wide area of ​​the city, but a driver must still be present in the vehicle.

So far, Chinese cities have allowed robotaxis to operate on a more limited basis with permission from local authorities, but Shenzhen’s rules provide a significant framework for liability in the event of an accident for the first time.

If the AV has a driver behind the wheel, the driver will be liable in an accident. If the car is completely driverless, the owner of the vehicle will be responsible. If a malfunction causes an accident, the car owner can seek compensation from the manufacturer.

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“If you want more cars, eventually there will be accidents, so these rules are very important for large-scale deployment,” Deeproot CEO Maxwell Zhou said at the company’s offices in a tech park near the Hong Kong border.

“It’s not true driverless but it’s a big milestone.”

gear shift

So far the United States has moved on in AV tests, with California having flagged off public-road tests since 2014, allowing Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo LLC, Cruz, and Tesla to drive millions of miles in road tests. has been found.

But China has its foot on the accelerator, with Beijing making AV a key sector in its latest five-year plan. Shenzhen wants its smart vehicle industry to reach 200 billion yuan in revenue by 2025.

In May last year, Cruise Chief Executive Dan Aman warned President Joe Biden that US security regulations risked the country’s AV industry falling behind China, with the latter “topped down, centrally directed approaches”.

DeProut aims to have 1,000 robotaxis with safety drivers on Shenzhen’s roads in the next few years, when more detailed regulations are expected.

But in the state-owned city of 22,000 electric taxis from BYD, based in Shenzhen, where a 20-km (12-mile) journey costs about 60 yuan ($9), production costs for the AV need to come down before Robotaxis. will be required. are commercially viable, Zhou said.

Deprout and other robotics companies are banking on mass production to reduce costs and gather data. DeProte sells its driving solutions to CarMarkers for about $3,000.

Zhou sees Shenzhen’s DJI Technology Company as a role model, using the company’s low hardware costs and integrated supply chain to make it a major player in the worldwide commercial drone space.

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On July 21, Baidu announced a new AV with a detachable steering wheel, which next year will cost Robotaxis at 250,000 yuan per unit, nearly half the price of its previous generation.

“We are moving towards a future where taking a robotic taxi will cost half the cost of taking a taxi today,” Baidu Chief Executive Robin Li said at the Baidu World Conference.

frog in a well

Shenzhen’s supply chain and low cost give it a major production advantage over Silicon Valley, but AV solutions maker David Chang doesn’t want to be bound by one market.

“The capital cost in Shenzhen is a third of what it is for California, because we have battery suppliers, we have sensors, we have most of the integration,” said the CEO and founder of Shenzhen-based Whale Dynamic.

“But revenue is a twelfth for California, so it can’t be a fancy business,” he said.

dProut, Veride and Pony.AI also have offices in Silicon Valley, with R&D teams and testing at both locations.

“We don’t want to sink ourselves into a well and fight other frogs. We want to jump out of that well,” Chang said.

($1 = 6.7433 Chinese Yuan Renminbi)

(This story refines the spelling in paragraph 4 to correct for viewing (not the site))

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Reporting by David Kirton; Editing by Michael Perry

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.