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Didi sets sights on China's first robotaxi service in Shanghai

Ride hailer taps app data in driverless race against Baidu's Apollo project

Didi Chuxing showcases its self-driving taxi at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference Friday in Shanghai. (Photo by Shunsuke Tabeta)

SHANGHAI -- Didi Chuxing, China's largest ride-hailing startup, will bring driverless taxis to Shanghai, the company announced Friday, with service to begin as soon as within the year.

"Didi has the potential to become the first business to realize large-scale robotaxi service in China," Zhang Bo, Didi's chief technology officer, said at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai.

The company is partnering with the city to roll out the service in the streets of Jiading, a suburban district in the country's commercial hub. The fleet spanning 30 models will be capable of Level 4 autonomous driving, one notch shy of full automation. Human staff will be along for the ride.

The service will be available on Didi's mobile app. The robotaxis will eventually operate in three cities in two to three years, with an expansion overseas also on the table.

Didi's edge in driverless tech is built on the vast trove of driving data from the app, which boasts the world's largest user base at 550 million people. For the robotaxi AI to perform at an optimum level, massive amounts data from cameras and sensors are needed for processing.

Founded in 2012, Didi quickly made its way to the forefront of China's ride-hailing market. The dominance was sealed with the 2016 acquisition of Uber Technologies' Chinese operation. Using the copious data produced by its 30 million registered drivers, Didi has cooperated with police and other authorities to ease congestion.

"Driverless technology is likely to turn into a competition between alliances rather than companies," said Zhang. This reflects the priority Didi has placed on forming partnerships with major automakers.

In August, Didi spun off its self-driving segment to fast track development. The unit will be part of an alliance among Chinese automakers, battery producers and telecommunication companies, Zhang said.

There are also foreign partners such as Toyota Motor, which already invests in Didi, as well as Volkswagen, Porsche, and Canadian auto supplier Magna International.

The initiative appears to draw from Didi's D-Alliance for ride-hailing announced last year. In addition to jointly developing self-driving cars, Didi and its partners plan to provide comprehensive services like maintenance, purchasing and leasing.

Didi's alliance will be up against Baidu, China's answer to Google. Baidu spearheads the Apollo project, a self-driving platform with 150 members. Apollo is due to begin pilot tests of autonomous vehicles in China's Hunan Province later this year.

Although Didi only started developing self-driving technology in 2016, the company is poised to overtake Baidu thanks to the reams of data it has on hand.

If anything, Didi's rivals are located across the Pacific. Waymo, the self-driving subsidiary under Google parent Alphabet, has reportedly racked up over 10 million miles worth of pilot tests on public roads. Late last year, Waymo opened its doors to the Waymo One mobility service, offered in a limited area in Arizona.

Uber, together with Toyota, plans to commercialize completely autonomous mobility vehicles by 2021. General Motors has also established a driverless arm in the name of GM Cruise.

"We will need to considerably increase investment in order to prepare for competition with the U.S.," Didi CEO Cheng Wei said in a lecture Thursday.

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