American cars, made in Mexico and fitted with Chinese AI, have begun plying the streets of Shenzhen as the city’s second robotaxi service opened for app bookings Monday.
The DeepRoute robotaxi fleet launched with 20 Lincoln cars restricted to 200 km of road in Shenzhen’s Futian district, a stone’s throw across the Hong Kong border at Lok Ma Chau.
DeepRoute says its vehicles have already driven “a million miles” safely in four different cities. The firm’s partner Xuan Liu says the firm tested the robotaxis in Shenzhen for more than two years before opening the app for bookings, and will have safety drivers on board.
While DeepRoute claims to be the first such service in the city, rival AutoX launched a robotaxi fleet into Shenzhen in January 2020. That firm, founded by “Professor X” Jianxiong Xiao and funded by Alibaba and Dongfeng, also used American cars, in that case the Chrysler Pacifica minivans also used by Google-subsidiary Waymo. The company has not released any news or results of its service to date.
And 100 km north in Guangzhou, WeRide last year says its robotaxi fleet had notched up 150,000 trips in its first year. Like DeepRoute and AutoX, WeRide’s cars come with a safety driver, the firm’s founder and CEO Tony Han said the firm will be ready to roll out fully autonomous vehicles by 2023-2024.
Neither DeepRoute, AutoX or WeRide have opened their services directly to the public: AutoX users needed to apply for an account through a lengthy internet form, while passengers wishing to use the DeepRoute service must apply for an account through the firm’s WeChat account, and be approved, before they can use the app.
In Hong Kong, where even traditional ridesharing is illegal, long debates over licensing, ethics, safety and insurance have dogged autonomous vehicle (AV) development. But the government says it has now opened up special licenses for at least 30 trials, including at least 11 different AV models, as end April 2021. These include a small robotic people-mover at West Kowloon Cultural District and a 0.1 hectare AV testing “sandbox” at Hong Kong Science Park.
In December 2020, the Airport Authority (AA) announced it was planning autonomous vehicles for passenger transfer and to connect the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facility with Skycity and Tung Chung town centre. AA wouldn’t comment further on its plans, but promotional videos show 8-passenger driverless pods moving along purpose-built roads alongside pedestrian paths.
The Hong Kong government did not respond to questions on robotaxis or the latest AV development in Hong Kong.