The head of Baidu's autonomous driving open platform said that full commercial operations are still several years away with technical problems, high costs and lack of clear regulations likely to delay large-scale deployment of its robotaxis until around 2025.
"Technology problems remain the biggest challenge," said Li Zhenyu, the head of Baidu Apollo, on Tuesday on the sidelines of the AI-themed Baidu World 2020, the company's annual technology conference. "We don't see robotaxis being fully commercialised until 2025."
Li added that the current market remained relatively small and that an underdeveloped supply chain meant costs were still high.
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Nevertheless, robotaxis are seen as one of best ways to make money from autonomous driving technologies in the near future. Major self-driving companies, including Baidu, ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing, start-ups WeRide and AutoX have all launched limited robotaxi services in different cities across the country.
Baidu launched a public robotaxi service in Beijing last week, making it the third city after Changsha in Hunan province and Cangzhou in Hebei province with services. However, full autonomous driving - without a safety driver - remains a challenge due to the complexities of navigating busy, real-world environments.
Wang Yunpeng, general manager of technology at Baidu Apollo, said technical problems were still being addressed as a result of tests by its fleet of more than 500 self-driving cars worldwide.
Baidu Apollo's latest robotaxi, developed from FAW's electric SUV Hongqi E-HS3 model, has a manufacturing cost of about 1 million yuan (US$147,000) per vehicle, much higher than the per-vehicle cost of making a standard taxi currently, according to company information.
In Cangzhou, where Baidu rolled out 30 robotaxis last month, the cars still have a safety driver and a navigator, who controls cabin temperature and gives explanations of basic robotaxi functions to passengers.
Currently, robotaxi fleets can only drive in designated areas in both Beijing and Shanghai and commercial operations - where a fee is charged - would require a different licence from the government.
At the Baidu World event, the company also unveiled a fully-autonomous driving vehicle without a safety driver in a live demonstration, where a remote control was used, connected via a 5G network. The next generation mobile network, which offers higher capacity and lower latency, is seen as a key technology in China's deployment of autonomous driving.
However, current rules from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology introduced in April 2019 stipulate that a safety driver must be present in robotaxis to prevent possible accidents.