RoboTaxi venture reshuffles in Guangzhou

The world of autonomous vehicles just got a lot more interesting. Well-financed startup WeRide, which recently secured the majority of autonomous-vehicle licenses in Guangzhou, has formed a new joint venture to launch “RoboTaxis” in the provincial capital – possibly by as soon as next year.

What’s most interesting about the announcement is that it seems WeRide is, to use horseracing parlance, “changing jockeys in the middle of a race”. It had announced last September that it would launch the RoboTaxi service together with Baiyun Taxi, which has a fleet of more than 10,000 cars, and Guangzhou Auto Corp., the country’s second-biggest carmaker. In the latest announcement, there is no mention of GAC. Instead, the third partner of the JV is a state-owned company known for developing industrial parks, SCI (Guangzhou) Group. 

The joint venture, named WeRide RoboTaxi, will operate only in Guangzhou. 

The change might – or might not – have something to do with an announcement a week ago by GAC that is had partnered with Shenzhen-based tech giants Tencent and Huawei to launch its own autonomous driving system, in cars that will be rolling off production lines next month.

If it is, WeRide’s boss isn’t giving anything away. “WeRide RoboTaxi is dedicated to the building of future mobility. It is a crucial step taken by WeRide towards the commercialization of driverless vehicles. We will connect with more partners from different sectors in the future to create a mobility ecosystem and further explore the potential of autonomous driving,” WeRide’s co-founder and CEO, Han Xu, told local media.

The parties did not disclose the ownership structure of the joint venture, although SCI (Guangzhou) Group’s role is apparently to “ensure the supporting policies are in place”, while Baiyun Taxi will help to provide “real-life scenarios” for the commercialization of autonomous driving. 

WeRide, which is mostly a collection of super-bright Chinese returnees from California who worked previously for Google, Baidu, and others, has begun testing its self-driving technology in Guangzhou, Anqing, and California, with a total road mileage over 560,000 km. 

WeRide’s apparent advantage, in a cut-throat industry, is its licenses. In June, after only two years since its founding, the company secured20 of 24 autonomous driving road test licenses up for grabs in Guangzhou. GAC got one of its own, and the other three went to Pony.ai, AutoX, and Deep Blue. These licenses will allow the companies to put cars on designated roads in the city. The more licenses, the more data WeRide will accumulate, the better-trained its AI systems will be (or so the brain trust says).

SCI’s contribution shouldn’t be sneered at. To get this far, WeRide has been using testing grounds in mining zones and sea ports. Its spokesmen have spoken before about their confidence in overtaking Waymo, Google’s self-driving venture, very soon in number of miles traveled (or learned).

It’s been a fast and furious year for the startup. After completing an initial fundraising round in October last year, led by a consortium of Renault-Nissan and Mitsubishi, thre months later it brought in further funding from Hong Kong-based AI unicorn SenseTime and the investment arm of the Agriculture Bank of China. The company currently employs more than 300 people worldwide, 70% of whom are research and development engineers. 

It is a big prize they are racing for. Taxi services without a driver are the next phase of the development of autonomous driving. It requires a higher level of driving technology. 

Autonomous driving has an official name, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). According to the industrial standard, ADAS has five levels. WeRide’s Level 4 autonomous driving technology allows the system to handle driving on designated roads and in relatively controlled environments. Level 5 will rely completely on the autonomous driving system. The company apparently aims to remove drivers in two years, as a low-latency 5G network is rolled out.

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