Baidu claims its robotaxis rival traditional ride-hailing in parts of China

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Baidu got approval to charge fares for its robotaxi rides in the Beijing suburb of Yizhuang in November 2021.

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BEIJING — Chinese tech company Baidu said its robotaxi business in large cities is close to gaining the same traction with locals as traditional ride-hailing services.

During the third quarter, each of Baidu’s self-driving taxis completed an average of more than 15 rides a day in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, CEO Robin Li said Tuesday, according to a FactSet transcript of the earnings call.

“According to our knowledge, this number is quite close to the average daily rides for traditional ride-hailing services,” Li said. He did not share how many cars were in each local fleet.

For comparison, trips per active vehicle on ride-hailing apps in New York City averaged about 12 a day in September, according to the latest available municipal data.

In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Baidu’s robotaxis — branded Apollo Go — can only operate in certain suburban areas.

The company did not say whether it could charge fares for its robotaxi rides in Guangzhou or Shanghai.

About 12 months ago, Baidu gained Beijing city’s approval to start charging fares for robotaxi rides in the district of Yizhuang, about half an hour’s drive from the center of the capital city.

Those rides still require a human staff member to sit in the car.

However, this week Baidu said it obtained approval from local Beijing authorities to test 10 robotaxis without any human staff in the front row.

Pony.ai, a start-up that also operates a robotaxi business, said it obtained similar approval.

Both companies’ robotaxi rides in Beijing’s Yizhuang district remain heavily subsidized. A CNBC check of both Apollo Go and Pony.ai apps Wednesday found a discount of more than 80% was applied.

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Baidu has robotaxi operations in many cities in China, and can charge for fares in at least seven, according to the company.

Total robotaxi trips in the third quarter climbed by more than 300% from a year ago to more than 474,000 rides, the company said Tuesday.

When asked during the earnings call when Apollo Go would break even, the company said it believed the robotaxi will eventually be profitable and cheaper than current ride-hailing services, and that the impact of to Baidu’s overall profit and loss and cash flow is “manageable.”

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