CHANGSHA－A white car parked on a wide street in Changsha, capital of Central China’s Hunan province, awaits passengers. However, there’s something unusual about this ordinary-looking taxi－it has no “driver.”
In April, Changsha became the first in the country to roll out the self-driving taxi service for the public.
Though the service is currently limited to a selected part in the city, mainly covering residential communities, commercial areas and industrial parks, Changsha has nevertheless been dubbed the “City of Intelligent Driving” for unveiling such cutting-edge technology for public consumption.
The driverless cars, also known as robotaxis, are coproduced by Chinese search provider and artificial intelligence heavyweight Baidu and Chinese automaker FAW Hongqi, and operated by Hunan Apollo Intelligent Transportation based in the city’s Xiangjiang New Area. Users can hail the taxis using Baidu Map, a mobile navigation app.
The driver’s seat is not exactly empty but occupied by safety staffer.
“During the self-driving mode, I do not need to control the steering wheel unless there is an emergency,” said Cao Jiajie, a technician with Hunan Apollo.
“A touch screen in the car identifies obstacles and makes dynamic predictions within a 360-degree field of vision and displays road conditions including nearby vehicles, lanes, intersections and traffic lights,” said Cheng Li, director of the company’s testing and vehicle operation department.
The city has been a trial ground for several categories of smart vehicles, including self-driving buses running on China’s first open-road smart bus demonstration line, according to a spokesperson of Xiangjiang Smart Tech Innovation Center.
The smart bus demonstration line, built in the Xiangjiang New Area, is 7.8 kilometers long. It has 22 stops in both directions and has been operated safely for two years.
Throttles, brakes, steering wheels and gear shifting in these autonomous vehicles are all managed by computers, allowing the “driver” to keep a better eye on the road during test drives, said He Jiancheng, a safety personnel staff.
“My main task is to deal with any unpredictable situations that the car may encounter,” he said.
Based on their automation levels, intelligent driving technology at home and abroad is placed in five categories from L1 to L5.Self-driving taxis and buses plying Changsha roadways belong to L4 and L3, respectively, namely the “highly automated level “and the “conditional automated level”.
Although China is a latecomer to the self-driving sector, ambitious plans from technology giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent as well as startups like Pony.ai have jump-started the industry.