(ATF) Chinese self-driving car technology continued to leap ahead this week, as internet giant Baidu received a permit from California to test its cars without a driver behind the wheel, while autonomous driving pioneer AutoX launched its driverless RoboTaxi programme to the public in Shenzhen.
Although self-driving vehicles are designed to eliminate the need for a driver, most testing has been with a safety driver behind the wheel who can take over in case of emergency.
California's Department of Motor Vehicles said Baidu is the sixth company to have a permit to test without a driver behind the wheel. The permit allows it to test three autonomous vehicles on specified streets within Sunnyvale, Santa Clara County.
"The vehicles are designed to operate on roads with posted speed limits not exceeding 45 miles per hour," the DMV said in a January 27 statement. "Tests may be conducted during all times of the day and night, but will not occur during heavy fog or heavy rain."
Currently, 58 companies have permits in California to test self-driving cars with such a backup driver, including most major automakers and Apple. According to Baidu, it will be using two different models of cars for testing its self-driving system, the Lincoln MKZ sedan and the Chrysler Pacifica van.
The Chinese search engine leader has 500 self-driving cars testing mostly in China and some in the United States with safety drivers. It has not said when it will start testing without a driver in California.
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Baidu said it has already been testing cars on public streets of the city of Changsha in Hunan province without a driver behind the wheel.
The AutoX launch of its fully driverless RoboTaxi on January 28 comes after a final testing period. This marks the first time that the general public will be able to book a completely autonomous self-driving car without accompanying safety drivers in China.
The vehicle, a Chrysler Pacifica, runs on regular public roads in the city, turns, passes and copes with a scooter running traffic lights in this video.
"During the trip, passengers can speak to a customer support agent if they have any questions," an AutoX spokeswoman said. "The support agents are also able to check the status of the vehicle in real time to provide assistance if necessary."
Baidu also runs three robotaxi services open to the public in - Changsha, Beijing, and Cangzhou, Hebei province - but with safety drivers behind the wheel.
With reporting by Reuters