On Tuesday of this week, the Shanghai government greenlighted Didi’s push to test its fleet of autonomous vehicles on public roads.
Didi, for the uninitiated, emerged back in 2015 following a merger between local rivals Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache, with the combined company now the market leader in China by a distance. As an aside, Uber unfurled the white flag on its Chinese ambitions back in 2016 when it sold its local unit to Didi in a $35 billion deal, and in the intervening years Didi has doubled down on its global ambitions via a number of international launches — with Uber firmly in its crosshairs.
Like Uber, which has been investing heavily in autonomous driving technology, Didi has been ramping up its ambitions in the driverless car sphere, and in early August it revealed a new independent self-driving vehicle entity designed to expedite its R&D and real-world implementations. The unit now employs 200 people working across the various facets of autonomous vehicle design and development, including HD mapping, security, behavior prediction, infrastructure, and more.
Speaking at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai this week, Didi CEO and founder Cheng Wei revealed specifics about Didi’s so-called “robo-taxi” initiative, with riders able to hail a self-driving car through the Didi app.
Didi said it will deploy 30 different models of Level 4 autonomous vehicles on roads in the Jiading district of Shanghai, which will include human safety drivers.
“Technology only has worth when it brings value to people’s lives,” Cheng said. “We believe giving ordinary citizens access to large-scale, shared autonomous fleets is key to achieving our shared goal of safety, efficiency and sustainability for future cities.”
A number of companies are working toward bringing fully autonomous vehicles to roads around the world. The most advanced and high-profile of these is Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, which unveiled its first commercial driverless taxi service last year, with further expansions firmly on its agenda. Last year, Russia’s Yandex led the European autonomous vehicle charge with the first public pilot of a robo-taxi service, and it recently committed to putting 100 driverless cars on roads by 2020. Japanese companies are also turbo-charging their efforts to get autonomous vehicles on roads in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games next year.
Didi’s latest move fits into the broader global push to make autonomous vehicles a reality — and being “first” is very much central to these efforts, both from a global and local perspective.
“Working with our auto-industry partners, Didi has the potential to become the first business to realize a large-scale robo-taxi service in China,” added Didi chief technology officer (CTO) Zhang Bo.