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China’s robotaxi, a dream come true? What do drivers think about it?

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China’s robotaxi, a dream come true? What do drivers think about it?

Forumul Economic Regional Moldova 2024 – Vatra Dornei, 4–6 iulie

China’s yearslong endeavor to develop robotaxis is beginning to gain traction with consumers, but it is also causing concern among taxi drivers who fear losing their jobs due to increased competition.

Baidu’s robotaxi unit, Apollo Go, became one of the top 10 trending hashtags on social media platform Weibo on Wednesday, following reports of rapid user adoption in Wuhan. In March, the company began operating fully driverless vehicles 24/7 in certain districts of the city.

China had over 7 million registered ride-hailing drivers by the end of May, nearly double the 3.51 million drivers reported in July 2021, according to the Ministry of Transport.

A Baidu Inc. Apollo RT6 robotaxi was seen on the road during Baidu’s Apollo Day in Wuhan on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Apollo Go, Baidu’s ride-hailing platform, aims to deploy 1,000 robotaxis in Wuhan by the end of 2024, covering major cities including Shanghai and Beijing.

As of April, over 70% of Apollo Go robotaxi rides in Wuhan were fully driverless, and the company stated in May that it expects 100% of rides to be completely autonomous in the coming quarters.

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The increased attention on robotaxis coincides with major Chinese cities enhancing their support, while smaller cities have recently restricted ride-hailing apps.

On Wednesday, social media posts quickly speculated on a nationwide rollout of Wuhan’s robotaxi tests, with hashtags like “Are driverless ride-hailing cars stealing people’s rice bowls,” reflecting concerns about job security. In late June, a taxi company in Wuhan appealed for reduced taxes and more restrictions on Apollo Go robotaxis and the number of ride-hailing cars.

Despite the rising prominence of robotaxis, wage growth in China has slowed from around 10% annual increases before the pandemic to 4% in recent years, with a slight improvement to 5.6% year-on-year growth in the first quarter, according to Goldman Sachs analysis.

The surge of new companies and ride-hailing drivers has led some local governments to restrict the industry. The city of Guyuan in the Ningxia autonomous region suspended online ride-hailing businesses in May due to market saturation, while Guiyang suspended new ride-hailing licenses for half a year through June.

China’s Ministry of Transport reported over 7 million registered ride-hailing drivers by the end of May, up from 3.51 million in July 2021. In comparison, the U.S. had nearly 400,000 taxi and ride-hailing drivers in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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The number of ride-hailing companies in China has also increased from 241 in 2021 to 351 in May this year.

In January, multiple Chinese ministries released a plan to promote cloud-connected cars, including tests of at least 200 low-speed unmanned vehicles in each pilot region. Recently, a list of 20 initial pilot cities was released, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Wuhan, which have allowed robotaxi operators to test cars in suburban areas.

Beijing began allowing Baidu’s Apollo Go and startup Pony.ai to collect fares from the public for rides with a safety driver in November 2021. Last year, Beijing permitted the operators to remove all staff from some vehicles, and draft rules were released last month to hold car owners and managers accountable for traffic violations in driverless cars.

Public-facing robotaxi rides are currently subsidized, with the number of vehicles on the road still far fewer than traditional taxis. For example, a 45-minute robotaxi ride from Daxing airport to a southern suburb of Beijing is fully subsidized, waiving the entire 193.84 yuan ($26.66) cost, while a 16-minute robotaxi ride within the suburb costs 10.36 yuan, about half the fare of ride-hailing apps.

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Baidu CEO Robin Li told investors in May that more than 70% of Apollo Go robotaxi rides in April were fully driverless and predicted this share would reach 100% soon, allowing Apollo Go to break even in Wuhan first. Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is aiming to become the world’s first autonomous driving city.

The rise of robotaxis is seen as a significant shift in China’s transportation landscape, though there are still challenges, such as improving storage and grid flexibility to efficiently use the increasing volume of clean energy. The Chinese government recognizes this and has invested heavily in technologies like lithium-ion batteries.

In summary, China’s aggressive push towards robotaxi development is reshaping the industry, but it also brings challenges and concerns, particularly among traditional taxi drivers and those worried about job security.


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