Taxi! Cabs with no driver are here
Dodging jaywalkers, changing lanes to overtake other drivers, maintaining a safe trailing distance — these are basic skills one must master before getting a driver’s license.
Now imagine all these maneuvers performed independently by a robot taxi on a busy, sometimes congested, Chinese road.
In a bustling city block in Changsha, capital of central China’s Hunan Province, a fleet of white electric cars are putting self-driving into reality, navigating a busy traffic flow and attracting oohs and aahs from photo-taking passersby.
Co-produced by Chinese search provider and artificial intelligence heavyweight Baidu and Chinese carmaker FAW Hongqi, 45 Robotaxis have begun test runs on 135 kilometers of city roads since receiving approval from the government of Changsha on September 26.
Test rides on these robotic vehicles have offered a glimpse into the tantalizing future of smart, driverless traffic systems, which experts say are more effective and less prone to accidents.
The Robotaxi does not look much different than an ordinary SUV on the outside, other than cameras and radar lasers on the roof.
The 5km drive on real roads around the Meixi Lake International Culture & Arts Center started after reporters tapped a screen to select a destination. The screen later displayed road conditions near the car, including the movements of cars and pedestrians.
The car then performed a series of near-flawless maneuvers from turning around to decelerating as a jaywalker crossed the street.
In a real-life incident, there was a rear-end collision in front of the Robotaxi. It showed down immediately, bypassing the accident at a safe distance.
The driver’s seat is not exactly empty but occupied by “safety personnel.” Hu Bibo, one such “driver,” with 10 years of driving experience, said he now has “limited functions.”
With the throttle, brake, steering wheel and gear lever all managed by computers, Hu had the ability to move his hands and look around more during the test drive.
“My main task is to deal with any unpredictable situations that the car may encounter,” he said.
Changsha is among a number of Chinese cities actively exploring self-driving technologies with open road trials.
So far, the zone has hosted over 1,800 tests on automatic vehicles from 38 companies, with a testing mileage of more than 60,000km. Industry heavyweights like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com have all tested their vehicles or key systems here.