This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
As if we need any more proof, a new tech trend shows that the world is indeed turning into a sci-fi movie. Various companies in China have announced that they will roll out “robotaxi” fleets with driverless cars in the coming months.
Ride-hailing applications are looking to launch the robotaxis in Shanghai within the year, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. Top players include Didi Chuxing, China’s biggest ride-hailing app, and AutoX, a Chinese startup specialising in AI drivers. Both announced their plans during the Shanghai World Artificial Intelligence Conference held late last month.
Didi announced on Aug. 30 that it will conduct trials with both driverless and human-piloted vehicles (the latter just for the trials) within the next few months. An initial fleet of 30 Didi automated, self-driving cars will be available to passengers in Shanghai’s industrial district Jiading. No specific timeline was provided.
The next day, during the closing ceremony of the WAIC conference, AutoX signed a partnership agreement with Shanghai Authorities to build a robotaxi pilot area, also in Jiading. AutoX plans to deploy 100 robotaxis in this area by the end of this year and early next year.
Both Didi and AutoX have tested their self-driving vehicles in China and the United States but their upcoming trial launch is said to be the first time robotaxis will be utilized on a large scale in the country.
“From [a] technical side, by 2020, we want to have robotaxis in three major Chinese cities,” said Didi Chuxing’s Chief Technology Officer Bob Zhang Bo. “By 2021, we want to launch the service outside China.”
Some have raised that the vehicles could result in taxi drivers losing their jobs, much like how robots continue to threaten the livelihood of factory workers. But Zhang argued that this won’t be the case. “Autonomous driving will offer a complement, not [a] replacement, to human drivers, who still have a lot of values for passengers,” he said.
Didi and AutoX aren’t the only Chinese companies getting into the futuristic industry. According to CNBC, Baidu, a Chinese technology company that specialises in AI, also plans to launch a robotaxi service in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province, by the end of the year. WeRide, a Guangzhou-based app, has also partnered with the city’s largest taxi operator Baiyun Taxi Group to provide a similar service by 2020. Pony.ai, meanwhile. announced earlier this year that they intend to expand their robotaxi fleet to 100 vehicles.
The world’s first self-driving taxi was launched by MIT-led NuTonomy in August 2016, which is available to the public in Singapore. However, only six vehicles that offer rides within a 2.5-square-mile-radius are available.