The Baidu Apollo Go robotaxi on the right operates alongside Pony.ai’s version in the Yizhuang suburb of Beijing. The photo was taken in November 2021, when Beijing allowed the two companies to collect fees.

VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

BEIJING — China’s capital is taking quick steps to boost the robotaxi business.

As of Tuesday, the Beijing suburb of Yizhuang district is officially open to local robotaxi operators — mainly Baidu Startup Pony.ai – Charges fares in fully autonomous taxis with no staff in the car.

This completely eliminates driver costs. Previously, commercial robotaxis for the public required an employee to sit in the car with the passenger. Yizhuang District is about half an hour’s drive from central Beijing and is home to companies such as JD.com.

Zhang Ning, vice president of Pony.ai and head of the Beijing R&D center, said approval for more robotaxis to operate in Beijing is imminent.

He told CNBC on Monday: “We are very confident that… maybe in just three years, our fully autonomous vehicles will be able to run throughout the entire city of Beijing.”

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Citing conversations with Beijing’s mayor, Zhang said the city aims to expand the robotaxi testing area to include Daxing International Airport and a train station by the end of the year.

in July, Beijing Mayor Yin Yong met with Pony.ai respectively. Alibaba and Xiaomi encourage their work in connected cars, artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies. This is according to official media reports reposted by Pony.ai on its official WeChat account.

Previously, the city also announced the overall situation Plan to expand testing area for robot axes.

Less than two years ago, in November 2021, Beijing allowed robo-taxi operators to charge for ride-hailing services to the general public, a first step toward eliminating driver costs. People can book highly subsidized robotaxi rides through apps from Baidu and Yizhuang District Pony.ai.

Of the more than 200 robotaxis operated by Pony.ai in the region, only about 10 are currently fully driverless, Zhang said. He pointed out that Beijing considered seven factors in its phased process of allowing public robotaxis to operate, including which seat the safety driver sat in and whether the vehicle was used for testing or commercial operations.

After preliminary testing, Zhang expects fully driverless robotaxis to be operating around Daxing Airport next year.

The city of Beijing did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. At the time of the announcement, Baidu had not revealed how many fully driverless robotaxis it could operate.

Robotaxi safety

Beijing Daxing International Airport is located south of the center of Beijing, indicated by a yellow star, and the Yizhuang area is close to the “G2” sign in the city center.

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Establishing a safety record to support further government approval of robotaxi operations relies heavily on data.

Pony.ai’s Zhang said the company cleans the data by removing sensitive information such as license plate numbers and data related to personal identities, including removing faces from videos.

He said only a limited number of people can access sensitive data, and that Chinese data stays in China and any U.S. data stays in the U.S.

Pony.ai claims that as of March 2022, it is valued at US$8.5 billion. Zhang said the company aims to break even by 2025.

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Chinese tech giant Baidu It operates a robotaxi called Apollo Go in other cities in China and claims to have made more than 3.3 million trips.

In June, the tech giant said it had received approval to operate unattended robotaxis in suburban Shenzhen. Previously, some robotaxis in parts of Wuhan and Chongqing received similar approval in August 2022, eliminating the need for staff.

Zhang said Pony.ai also operates robotaxis in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai.

—CNBC’s Kif Leswing and Lora Kolodny contributed to this article.

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