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    Look, Hal, No Hands! Robotaxis Rolled Out in Suburban Shanghai

    Sixth Tone takes a free ride in a hands-free car, now available to book in Shanghai’s suburban Jiading District.

    SHANGHAI — No hands on the wheel, no feet on the pedals: A white Volvo cruises the streets of suburban Shanghai free of human control. The computer system housed in the trunk quickly processes information gathered by a fast-spinning sensor atop the vehicle, calculating how many pedestrians are nearby and predicting which lane the car in front will shift into.

    This unmanned car is among the first self-driving taxis — or robotaxis — permitted to carry passengers on the open roads of Shanghai, part of a pilot program from China’s dominant ride-hailing platform, Didi Chuxing. Since Saturday, users of Didi’s app aged 18 to 70 have been able to sign up for a free test drive.

    Wang Mingze, a Didi spokesperson, told Sixth Tone that so far, over 10,000 people have requested test drives. “The line is pretty long,” he said. “People will have to wait a few days before their turn comes up.”

    Currently, Didi’s robotaxi service includes a human driver at the wheel, ready to take over in unexpected situations. The robotaxis are equipped with cameras and sensors, which allow them to “see” nearby traffic, as well as monitor a conventional vehicle’s blind spots.

    The cars all follow the same route: a 6-kilometer loop from the Shanghai Automobile Exhibition Center to a nearby hotel. But the company plans to gradually roll out its on-demand autonomous service over a larger area in Jiading, where Shanghai’s main autonomous driving zone is located.

    “That was an interesting experience, but also kind of half-baked,” Wu You, a Jiading resident who participated in the test drive service Wednesday, told Sixth Tone. She explained that the traffic conditions in the area are relatively straightforward, with few cars and pedestrians on the road. “That’s not what the rest of Shanghai looks like,” she said.

    Didi would not disclose how many robotaxis are currently running in the area. “Shanghai is our main trial site, and we have dispatched over 100 self-driving taxis in several places around the globe, including California,” Wang said.

    While Didi is the first ride-hailing company to roll out a robotaxi service in Shanghai, a few companies launched similar services in other Chinese cities earlier this year. Tech giant Baidu introduced 45 of its robotaxis in the central city of Changsha in March, and Momenta, a startup backed by Baidu rival Tencent, has announced plans for a robotaxi test run in Beijing this fall.

    The governments of other Chinese metropolises, including Guangzhou and Chongqing in the south of the country, have greenlighted open-road testing for autonomous cars.

    While it may seem like a momentous move, putting wheels to pavement on China’s open roads is still just an early step toward commercializing robotaxi services, experts say.

    “The goal of robotaxis is to eliminate the need for human drivers, which is how we can cut costs and make profits,” Yang Ming, an unmanned vehicle expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, told Sixth Tone. “But currently, no company can do this.”

    According to an April report from China EV100, a nonprofit think tank, the cost of an unmanned taxi is currently around $100,000 more than a regular taxi. The spinning sensor, which is used to detect traffic conditions, can cost tens of thousands of dollars by itself, Yang said.

    The report said that as technology develops, the cost of operating robotaxis could fall below that of conventional taxis by 2027 — and if this happens, it will “revolutionize transportation services.”

    Designing vehicles to be completely autonomous is an extremely time-consuming endeavor, according to Yang. “They need to run enough miles before they really learn how to handle real-life situations,” he said. “We need to be patient about that.”

    But there’s not exactly an abundance of patience in fast-paced cities. Wu, the Jiading resident, said that although she would “definitely” use the autonomous service again, she’d opt for a regular taxi if she was in a hurry.

    “The car slows down every time it approaches an intersection or crosswalk, regardless of whether there’s traffic or pedestrians. I know that’s the safest way, but it’s also not practical to drive like that in a busy city like Shanghai,” she said.

    Experts have said that autonomous vehicles could significantly reduce the frequency of car accidents. According to a 2015 report by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94% of collisions are due to human error. And previous research has shown that autonomous vehicles equipped with sensors and cameras can respond to obstacles in about one-third of the time it takes a human driver to react.

    “We’re not saying autonomous cars don’t make mistakes,” Yang said, referencing a 2018 fatal crash in the U.S. involving a self-driving Uber. “It would not be surprising if something similar happened in China. But if accidents happen, it won’t be because the technology isn’t good enough.”

    The test drive passenger Wu, for her part, seemed confident in the technology.

    “When there’s an emergency, the computer definitely reacts faster and better than humans. But if I were driving on the road and saw a self-driving car in front of me, I’d probably, you know, stay away from it,” she said. “I don’t know why — maybe it’s just fear of the unknown.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A promotional photo for Didi Chuxing’s robotaxi service in Shanghai’s Jiading District. Courtesy of Didi Chuxing)