Fully driverless cars are being tested in China for the first time


SINGAPORE — Self-driving cars without human drivers as a back-up are now being tested in China’s Shenzhen city, according to AutoX, a Chinese autonomous car technology firm.

The Alibaba-backed company said Thursday that this is the first time a “completely autonomous fleet,” that has no accompanying human drivers or remote operators, is on the roads in China.

Multiple so-called “robotaxi” projects have been launched in Chinese cities, but these vehicles still have a driver who can take over in emergencies or someone who can operate the car remotely.

AutoX’s driverless vehicles

Courtesy of AutoX

Driverless “stress tests” to see how the vehicle performs in various road situations were conducted over the past six months, the company said in the press release.

Jewel Li, the firm’s chief operating officer, told CNBC that more than 100 robotaxis are being tested across Chinese cities, with 25 fully autonomous vehicles in Shenzhen.

To be clear, AutoX’s completely driverless robotaxis are not open to the general public yet. They are only available to employees and private guests, such as media, business partners, investors and auto-makers, according to CEO Jianxiong Xiao.

Plans to test outside China

The next step would be to increase the number of cars and the test area size, and to carry out tests in more cities, she said on “Squawk Box Asia” on Thursday. “We have a plan in the next six months to expand to 10 cities globally.”

Li said one of those cities will likely be in Southeast Asia, but did not specify which.

“We’re very excited about the Southeast Asia market, we think this is the next rising market,” she said.

It’s close to a sci-fi kind of experience for most of our riders. When you really experience the vehicle fully driving itself, the level of excitement is overwhelming.

Jewel Li

Chief operating officer, AutoX

She noted that AutoX has an advantage in Southeast Asia compared to other autonomous driving systems developed and tested in the West, because streets in Asia are more similar to those in Chinese cities.

AutoX also has a pilot self-driving taxi service in Shanghai and a permit to test driverless cars without a safety driver in parts of San Jose, California.

‘Sci-fi’ experience

Li said passengers found the fully driverless trials exciting.

“It’s close to a sci-fi kind of experience for most of our riders,” she said. “When you really experience the vehicle fully driving itself, the level of excitement is overwhelming.”

Beyond the novelty, she said autonomous vehicles will help to solve privacy issues and safety concerns in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.



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