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Reporter's notebook: a ride in a driverless AutoX robotaxi

Chinese startup rapidly hones its autonomous driving technology

AutoX has begun testing its fully driverless taxi service. (Photo courtesy of AutoX)

GUANGZHOU -- Chinese self-driving startup AutoX is rapidly improving its technology, doubling the distance run by its driverless car in a year-long experiment in the U.S. state of California.

The test drive included no human driver for security or other purposes.

AutoX has begun testing its fully driverless taxi service in Shenzhen in the southern China province of Guangdong. This reporter rode for 15 minutes in the vehicle in February, and found the vehicle ran smoothly on a public road at a maximum speed of 40 kph while avoiding parked cars.

The trial service is available within a range of several kilometers in Shenzhen's Pingshan District, home to many industrial parks and other facilities. While a certain number of cars and people come and go in the testing area, roads are wide and traffic is light compared to bustling areas

AutoX entered the location and destination in the smartphone app for the service and waited for a few minutes before a driverless cab showed up. I climbed into a rear seat and pushed the "Start" button on the panel screen. The vehicle began to move slowly.

The screen then switched to a map and began to show the surrounding environment, including cars coming from the opposite direction and pedestrians on the sidewalk.

In case of emergency or to change the destination, the passenger pushes the "Help" button on the screen.

Except for using the touch panel, the ride was almost the same as aboard a conventional cab.

The cab is based on a conventional passenger car, so it has a steering wheel. When the vehicle came to the curb, the steering wheel turned by itself and enabled it to run smoothly, without abrupt slowdowns. The cab also automatically controlled its speed and changed lanes.

The vehicle temporarily stopped before a car parked in front and made a lane change with a rapid turning of the steering wheel and returned to the original lane with a slow turning after passing the car.

In compliance with speed limits, the cab traveled no faster than 40 kph and so got passed by most other cars. The maximum speed of the driverless vehicle was set low evidently for the sake of safety. Although the ride was comfortable, I occasionally felt a little frustrated.

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