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Didi’s robotaxi service kicks off in Shanghai, taking another step towards a driverless future

Self-driving technology companies including Didi, Pony.ai, and AutoX all raked in fresh capital this year.

Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing’s robotaxi service has kicked off on June 27 in Shanghai, where signed-up passengers can request free rides in self-driving vehicles within a designated area that covers the city’s Automobile Exhibition Center, local business districts, subway stations, and downtown hotels.

In addition to mandatory safety drivers, Didi also set up a first-ever safety control center, for real-time monitoring of vehicle and road conditions with enhanced remote command assistance designed to handle larger-scale autonomous fleet operations in the future, according to the company’s press release.

Didi’s autonomous driving unit, with a staff of over 400 across its China and US offices, was minted as early as in 2016, and it was spun off to a subsidiary company called Woya in 2019. It now has obtained testing licenses in places including California, Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou.

Last year, Didi secured a passenger-carrying service license for its autonomous fleet from the Shanghai local government. In May, the largest ride-hailing provider in China announced the single largest fundraising round in the country’s autonomous driving sector—a USD 500 million round—led by Didi’s longtime backer SoftBank’s second Vision Fund.

“Artificial Intelligence in transportation will no doubt revolutionize safety and efficiency of the urban transit system,” said Cheng Wei, Didi’s CEO and founder.

He continued, “It will be a long way and takes at least a decade of continued investment before autonomous vehicle technology passes critical technology, business and regulatory milestones; but we are determined to tackle the challenges ahead.”

In 2018 and 2019, Didi tested in total 1,332 kilometers of autonomous driving in Beijing, ranking seventh, lagging far behind Baidu’s 893,900 kilometers and Pony.ai’s 121,300 kilometers. Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU) is now leading China’s heated unmanned mobility race.

The search engine company completed the construction of a 13,500-square-meter testing ground in May, dubbed “Apollo Park”, in Beijing, where Baidu is headquartered. It says its self-driving unit Apollo has tested fleets in 24 cities around the world. It squeezed into a top chart of autonomous driving companies this year, according to Navigant Research’s data, following Google’s Waymo, Ford, and Cruise.

Other major competitors in the sector include Guangzhou-based smart mobility startup WeRide, which partnered with Alibaba’s map app AutoNavi to roll out robotaxi service in Guangzhou, and Poni.ai, which closed a USD 462 million funding round led by Japanese car giant Toyota in February. Alibaba-backed AutoX also announced a pre-Series B round in January, bagging “tens of millions” of dollars.

Here are some autonomous driving companies to watch in the next few years:

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