Pony.ai, an autonomous vehicle company, has received approval in Guangzhou to operate 100 robotaxis as taxis. Pony’s new license, which permits it to charge for rides in its self-driving vehicles, is another step toward commercializing autonomous ride-hailing vehicles in China. WeRide, one of Pony’s Chinese competitors, has been partnering with Guangzhou’s government-backed cab operator Baiyun since 2019, giving the startup an early mover advantage on the road to commercialization. However, this is reported to be the first time China has issued a taxi license just for autonomous ride-hailing vehicles, eliminating the necessity for a traditional taxi operator.
Pony’s fleets are also subject to the same standards that apply to typical human-operated taxis under the license. In a statement, Tiancheng Lou, co-founder and chief technology officer of Pony.ai, said, “The inclusion of autonomous vehicles in the unified and standardized management of taxis proves that both government policy and the public are increasingly accepting robotaxis as a form of everyday transportation, recognizing the ride experience and technical stability of Pony.ai’s robotaxi.”
Pony, which announced an undisclosed raise last month that increased the company’s valuation to $8.5 billion, will begin collecting fares in Guangzhou’s Nansha District in May, an 800 square kilometer port zone in the country’s tech-driven Greater Bay Area. Between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m., passengers can hail a ride and pay using the PonyPilot+ App, with costs based on “normal taxi pricing in Guangzhou,” according to Pony. Pony did not answer to demands for details on the vehicles that would be part of its fleet, although photographs Pony shared with TechCrunch show a Lexus with Pony’s sensor suite.
Initially, each trip will include a human safety driver in the front seat, although Pony has said that the driver would be removed “over the short to intermediate time period.” This is an ambitious ambition, considering no Chinese local authority has officially approved unguided robotaxis to transport passengers. Even if Pony is successful in removing the driver, it’s unlikely that such a service would be permitted to operate in Guangzhou’s congested downtown in the near future. Pony stated that it plans to progressively expand the scale and scope of its service to other parts of the city, but did not say when this will happen.
“Pony.ai had to pass stringent safety and other multifaceted vehicle qualification tests set forth by national inspection institutions, such as having at least 24 months of [autonomous driving (AD)] testing in China and/or other countries, at least 1 million kilometers of testing mileage, at least 200,000 kilometers of AD testing within Guangzhou’s designated test area, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents,” according to the company. Pony had to recall its autonomous driving software in California, where it was testing its capabilities, after an incident in October, which resulted in the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoking the company’s driverless authorization.
Pony isn’t the first company to charge for robotaxis in Guangzhou. Last November, the firm, together with Baidu’s autonomous driving service, was granted permission to charge passengers in a limited suburban trial zone in Beijing. Pony is also testing self-driving vehicles in Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as in California’s Fremont and Irvine. As of mid-April, the firm claimed to have performed more than 700,000 rides, however the majority of those journeys were presumably in China.
Pony plans to expand its commercialized robotaxi footprint to two more major Chinese cities next year, with further growth anticipated for 2024 and 2025, if commercialization in Guangzhou and Beijing goes well. Pony has not responded to demands for more information or confirmation that it has applied for deployment permissions in California. Last year, the business planned to go public in New York through a SPAC merger, but those preparations were allegedly shelved when the company failed to secure guarantees from the Chinese government that it would not be targeted in a crackdown on Chinese internet firms.