Vlog: Taking a spin in Didi's new driverless taxis

Andy Boreham Zhong Youyang
More than 90 AI vehicle-related companies have set up shop in Jiading, all taking advantage of the 5G networks in the area. 
Andy Boreham Zhong Youyang
Shot by Andy Boreham, Qiao Zhengyue and Hu Jun. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou.

Ever since the first licenses for testing driverless cars were issued in Shanghai in 2018, dozens of companies have set up shop in Jiading District, where a 53.6-kilometer stretch of test road allows AI-driven cars to take to the streets.But there's a catch: they're still not allowed to operate without a human behind the wheel, although that's just a small issue for the multitude of companies testing these vehicles on the streets. 

In 2016, the first ever AI vehicle testing zone approved by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology officially opened here in Shanghai, opening the gates for domestic and international companies to hone their skills and make the future come to life. 

And it really is quite a sight out in Jiading, as dozens of intelligent cars with spinning radars and throngs of cameras — from multiple companies — zip by. The locals don’t seem to bat an eyelid, and a staff member from Didi gave me a bit of a strange look when I asked him if anyone has exhibited terrified looks on their faces as they zoom around.

One such company, ride-hailing app Didi, is now offering free rides for members of the public who want to check out the technology first-hand, as long as their origin and destination are inside the 65-square-kilometer test zone.  

When my ride pulled up after placing an order using the app, the car that pulled up reminded me of The Jetsons, that futuristic cartoon from decades ago that featured a decidedly 1960s take on what tomorrow may bring. A spinning radar unit on the roof with half a dozen cameras certainly looked curious. I got in and, for the purposes of immersing myself fully into this test, I ignored the two Didi employees sitting in front and pretended they weren’t there. They probably didn’t mind, since I guess they answer the same questions over and over again all day.

Once in the car, a seat-back screen asks me to first scan the QR code, which verifies I am the person who ordered the taxi. Then I need to fasten my seatbelt (the car has sensors which won't let it leave with anyone unbuckled) and click "start my journey."With that the car pulled off by itself, the man in the driver's seat keeping his hands away from the steering wheel and feet away from the pedal. Even though we were driving on what looked like an ordinary public road, with normal traffic and pedestrians and cyclists all around, the road here is special. It's all been fitted with sensors and digitally mapped, allowing all of the data generated in real time by the car to interact with information in the system and get us to our destination safely.The ride was smooth and uneventful, and I was even prompted to rate my ride in the app at the end. I knew I was rating an AI driver, so I gave five stars just in case AI takes over the world later and they know how to hold grudges.

It’s not just Didi out here developing tomorrow’s technology: more than 90 AI vehicle-related companies have set up shop in Jiading, all taking advantage of the 5G networks in the area which help such massive amounts of data transfer in real time from vehicles to the network and back again. By 2025 they reckon these types of vehicles will truly be fully driverless, so you have about five years to get used to the idea if it’s something that scares you.                         

Check out Andy’s vlog as he experiences the future in a driverless taxi.

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