The ongoing debate about the viability and safety of fully driverless vehicles hasn’t prevented several companies from putting them on the roads, the latest location being in Shenzhen, China, where AutoX is rolling out the first-ever fleet of completely driverless taxis.
The four-year-old company has been testing 25 of the vehicles in the city since April to see how they’ll fare in a large city without a safety driver sitting behind the wheel monitoring the vehicle. It’s also testing five vehicles in other cities around the world.
AutoX officials didn’t formally identify what the other locales were, noting it is just the third company to get approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test its driverless cars. It’s just the second permit allowing passenger vehicles to drive up to 45 mph on the state’s public roads, according to the company. However, it did tell VentureBeat.com it was testing a vehicle in San Jose, California.
Already operating 100 autonomous cabs in Shenzen and Shanghai since August, AutoX is joining Waymo in being the rare company that is offering rides to the public without any type of operator in the vehicle. Given the lingering impact of the pandemic, riders need only speak the last four digits of their phone number once in the vehicle to confirm their trip.
Looking to allay concerns about how their vehicles will handle all of the interaction that occurs in a large city, AutoX released video footage of its vehicles performing a variety of maneuvers during testing, including u-turns and driving around vehicles parked illegally.
The new set of robotaxis are equipped with the company’s newly released fifth-generation system, which includes a variety of tweaks to help it better navigate urban environments. “This new generation is upgraded with more powerful sensing technology to handle the densest and most complex traffic scenarios such as when pedestrians, fast cyclists, and small pets interact at close range to the vehicle simultaneously,” the company noted.
The system follows conventional thinking when it comes to sensors and cameras, using a mix of ultra-high-resolution cameras – designed in-house by AutoX – with two Lidar sensors placed on both sides of the vehicles as well as advanced 4D radar sensors. It also has multiple blind spot-sensing suites on all sides of the vehicle, in order to create multi-sensor fusion surround vision that can detect even small objects in blind spots.
Most, but not all companies agree on the viability of lidar in autonomous systems. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the best-known dissenter when it comes to lidar, claiming it’s unnecessary. The California-based EV maker is currently allowing some of its vehicle owners to use a beta version of its long-awaited (and not inexpensive) full self-driving system and none of those cars or utility vehicles is equipped with lidar.
AutoX is partnering with some heavyweights in its development. It’s already existing fleet of self-driving cabs, which use safety monitors, can be hailed using Alibaba’s AutoNavi mapping and navigation app. A separate Shanghai-based taxi service called Letzgo also handles the rides.
In addition to the deal with Alibaba, AutoX has secured more than $160.1 million in venture capital financing to date from investors including Plug and Play Ventures, Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp., and Dongfeng Motor Group. It also plans to use Fiat Chrysler-built minivans for part of its services.