The Chinese capital Beijing opens a robotaxi route to a train station

Robotaxi operator Pony.ai has started testing human-powered rides between a Beijing suburb and a major high-speed train station.

CNBC | Evelyn Cheng

BEIJING – In three years, the Chinese capital Beijing has taken rapid steps to allow robotaxis to operate closer to the city center.

This month, the city began allowing tests of robotaxis carrying human personnel to travel the 40-minute route between a major high-speed rail station and a suburban area to the south.

That route between the Beijing South Railway Station and the Yizhuang suburb will open a public robotaxi service in the next two weeks, Ning Zhang, vice president at Pony.ai and head of its Beijing research and development center, told CNBC. in an exclusive interview Thursday. He mentioned pending government permits.

Zhang expects the train station route to be completely car-free, with no human staff, by the end of this year or early next year.

The latest route marks a significant expansion of the robotaxi operation from Beijing's suburbs to the city center. The capital is constructed with highways, nicknamed 'rings', in concentric circles around the city center.

Riding Baidu's self-driving robotaxi

The suburb of Yizhuang is located outside the Fifth Ring Road. Beijing South Railway Station is located within the Third Ring Road.

Zhang said there is a perception that Beijing would not allow robotaxis beyond the Fifth Ring Road.

“Now we're breaking that barrier,” he said.

“This is a big progress, and because Beijing is willing to take such a big step, it will be a very good example, a showcase for all of China,” he said.

In November 2021, the city of Beijing allowed robotaxi operators Pony.ai and Baidu's Apollo Go to collect fares for public rides in Yizhuang, a first step toward eliminating driver fees.

Less than two years later, Beijing authorities allowed robotaxi companies to remove human workers from some public cars and still charge fares. Users can hail the taxis using special apps.

Beijing authorities in late February expanded the working area for manned, public-facing robotaxis to Daxing International Airport, near Yizhuang. In addition to Pony.ai and Baidu, AutoX and WeRide also received operating permits, a government statement said.

Zhang expects the city to allow robotaxi operations around Beijing Capital International Airport in the north by the end of this year. The subsequent expansion is also expected to include the city's four other train stations, he said.

For Pony.ai, he expects that there will be more than 50 fully driverless taxis in Beijing by the end of this year.

He expects that Beijing will allow robotaxis to operate between the Sixth and Fourth Ring Roads regardless of the city district in the next two years. That requires Pony.ai to get ready for a robotaxi fleet on the scale of 1,000 vehicles by the end of 2025, he said, noting that the startup is working with Toyota to mass produce the cars.

Once there are 500 to 1,000 robotaxis in one city, Zhang says the operation can break even. With the scale, he expects business growth “to be exponentially fast in the coming years.”

That also depends on the pace of regulatory support. Zhang expects that Beijing will allow robotaxis throughout the city in three to five years.

Robotaxis in the US

Global interest in robotaxis has now increased, with Alphabet's Waymo expanding its operations on the West Coast.

Elon Musk announced this in April Tesla shall unveils its robotaxi on August 8.

When asked about Musk's plans, Zhang said Pony.ai hoped Tesla's involvement in the industry could help “reshape” transportation. But he said Tesla's Full Self Driving technology was better for assisted driving than a full self-driving system.

As for other Chinese robotaxi operators, Zhang does not expect a fierce rivalry in the coming years as the nascent industry continues to gain popularity.

Baidu said that Apollo Go operated approximately 826,000 rides in the first quarter, compared to 660,000 rides in the same period a year ago. As of April 19, cumulative rides have exceeded 6 million.

During Baidu's latest earnings call, CEO Robin Li said the company expected its robotaxi business to narrow losses for the rest of the year, according to a FactSet transcript. He added that Baidu's latest robotaxi vehicle costs less than $30,000, not including the battery.

Beijing's city government began allowing tests of robotaxis to a major high-speed train station in the south of the city in May 2024.

CNBC | Evelyn Cheng

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