Just 100 km north of Hong Kong, China’s first robotaxi service has completed its first year of operation, making nearly 150,000 autonomous trips within its 144-sq-km sandbox boundary in Huangpu in Guangzhou.
WeRide Robotaxi, a joint venture between WeRide and Guangzhou Baiyun Taxi Group, rolled out in November 2019 using “safety drivers” as a backup, but was awarded China’s first fully driverless road test permit in July 2020, paving the way for a fully autonomous service in the near future. The firm’s founder and CEO Tony Han says the firm will be ready to roll out fully autonomous vehicles within “three to four years”.
WeRide Robotaxi can be hailed through the WeRide Go app or Alibab’s Amap and operates on urban open roads in the Huangpu and Guangzhou Development District, serving a population of around 1.1 million, 10 subway stations, five large shopping malls and countless factories and offices. In terms of mode-sharing, 55% of trips replace traditional taxis, 27% public transport, 8% private car, 4% walking and 3% bicycle, the company says. A third of users complete their journey at either end only on foot.
Over the National Day Holiday, WeRide Robotaxi says each car saw 17.9 orders per day, with an average service duration of 22 minutes and an average service mileage of 6.9km. “Despite being confined within the electronic fences with no long-distance orders such as ones via highways or to the airport, the operation of WeRide’s Robotaxis is already on a par with that of conventional taxis,” the company says.
Data from a small-scale survey of 657 users shows a young professional customer base, with almost half under 30 and only 3% over 50. Among the passengers, 65% were male and 60% had at least an undergraduate degree.
Price appears to be a major driver in customer choice, according to the survey: if both a robotaxi and a traditional car were available, 43% said they would take the car with the lowest fare, while just 14% said they would take whichever was faster. Almost a third said they would choose a robotaxi no matter what, against just 9% sticking to a traditional car, whether slower or more expensive.
The operation has yielded valuable data for researchers, says Ruimin Li, Associate Professor at Tsinghua University and Director of Institute of Transportation Engineering. “The mass application of self-driving technology will impact on urban transportation systems in many ways. However, due to the lack of real case studies of self-driving operation, many ideas remain unsubstantiated,” he says.
Safety has been a major concern with autonomous cars: WeRide Robotaxi reported no accidents in its first 300 days of operation, but provides no further accident data on the full year’s operation and has not responded to enquiries about accident rates for the year.
In the US, autotaxi service Waymo released a detailed report on its safety experience with results from 10 million km of automated driving and 100,000 km of fully automated “no human” driving: Waymo’s vehicles had 18 crashes with a pedestrian, cyclist, driver, or other object, while experiencing 29 “disengagements”, where a safety driver took control of the wheel to prevent a crash.
“This data represents over 500 years of driving for the average licensed US driver,” says Waymo.
“This data is unlike almost all driving data available to the world, as it includes every collision or contact, even those with no damage that would not be reported to insurance companies or local police departments. The majority of incidents in our report fall into this category of typically unreported minor collision or contact,” says the company.
Waymo says safety is its goal, aiming to build “the world’s safest driver”.