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DeepRoute links up with Cao Cao Mobility to roll out robotaxi fleet in Hangzhou

The startup provides a self-driving system priced at about RMB 250,000 (USD 36,151), one of the cheapest of its kind in China.

DeepRoute 3 DeepRoute and Cao Cao are codeveloping robotaxis. Photo provided to KrASIA

Shenzhen-based autonomous driving startup DeepRoute has partnered with ride-hailing platform Cao Cao Mobility to roll out a robotaxi fleet with hundreds of self-driving vehicles in Hangzhou, capital of East China’s Zhejiang province, by 2022, KrASIA has learned.

DeepRoute, which counts Fosun RZ Capital among its investors, will transform Geely’s Geometry A electric vehicle models into robotaxis by integrating its self-driving systems. Geely is backing Cao Cao since 2018, when it invested RMB 1 billion (USD 145 million) in the startup that has since grown to operate more than 50,000 vehicles on its ride-hailing platform, serving 39.4 million registered users in 55 cities in China, according to information provided by DeepRoute.

DeepRoute’s system provides vehicles the components needed for Level 4 self-driving, which features fully autonomous capabilities, including sensing, perception, HD mapping, planning, and control. This system is now priced at about RMB 250,000 (USD 36,151) per vehicle, a DeepRoute spokesperson confirmed, adding that it’s one of the cheapest of its kind in the market.

The package includes the company’s in-house developed products like the inference engine DeepRoute-Tite, which helps cutting cost, size, and power consumption of the computing platform, and a camera system called DeepRoute-Vision, which allows the vehicles to accurately detect traffic light colors and traffic signs.

“However, we do not sell the autonomous driving systems to Cao Cao in this deal,” Liu Nianqiu, vice president of DeepRoute, told KrASIA, adding that “the two companies will cooperate to get the robotaxis on the road and will share the income from the taxi services in the future.”

In order to promote adoption, all robotaxi services are currently free of charge in China. “This allows us to speed up developing autonomous driving vehicles at relatively low costs, under a light-asset model,” said Liu, explaining that his company does not need to buy vehicles in this project.

The two companies plan to deploy a fleet of 10 robotaxis for testing in the second half of this year, and to offer rides to the public by 2021, via the Cao Cao app.

Pioneering robotaxi services

Before its cooperation with Cao Cao, DeepRoute already sold its self-driving systems to Dongfeng Motor, collaborating on a robotaxi service that was available to attendees of the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019. The project was however badly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in January, resuming only recently, said Liu.

WeRide, which is chauffeuring people in a restricted area in Guangzhou since November 2019, chose a different model. The company buys vehicles from automakers, adds its autonomous driving systems, and teams up with traditional taxi operators to assist with operating the robotaxi fleet.

After WeRide, Baidu (NASDAQ: BIDU) rolled out a robotaxi service in Changsha, in Central China’s Hunan province, in April, while Alibaba-backed AutoX launched its service in Shanghai this Monday. China’s largest ride-hailing platform Didi has started to offer test rides in its robotaxis on June 27, also in Shanghai.

Read this: This startup vows to have fully driverless robotaxis available to the public by 2021: Inside China’s Startups

US research firm Markets and Markets predicted in April 2019 that there would be 2,024 robotaxis worldwide in 2020 and 3,830,912 units by 2030, representing a compound annual growth rate of 112.67%. Rising concerns over road safety, the emissions problem, and the increasing demand for ride-hailing services are behind the increase, according to the study.

Although DeepRoute is lagging behind WeRide, Baidu, AutoX, and Didi in China, Liu believes that the gap is not that big. He is willing to take the necessary time to be able to provide a safe service.