back to article Robotaxis freed to charge across 60km2 of Beijing

Sixty square kilometres in Beijing's Economic and Technological Development Zone have been approved for commercial operation of Chinese web giant Baidu's autonomous taxi service. The service, called Apollo Go, will have over 600 pick-up and drop-off points in both commercial and residential areas and will run from 07:00 to 22: …

  1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    It's not riding IN robotaxis that worries me. It's being in their path.

    1. batfink Silver badge

      Agreed. It may be a lot safer for the rider than for passing pedestrians etc.

      So, the "would you feel safe" question should be divided into two: inside and outside a Johnny Cab.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Also, why no option, Taxi? What's a taxi?

  2. Chris G Silver badge

    I like meeting taxi drivers of indeterminate origin, who have thick accents, don't speak the language well and do not know the city.

    Each taxi ride is a trip into the unknown, I love the adrenalin during the ride and the relief of eventually arriving at the correct destination.

    1. veti Silver badge

      Not sure how robo drivers are going to make that any better...

      1. vtcodger Silver badge

        Robo drivers

        "Not sure how robo drivers are going to make that any better"

        My understanding is that Waymo only works within thoroughly mapped areas. Good technical reasons for that. I imagine these are the same. You give it an address (How? If you don't speak a Chinese language or have a basic understanding of Chinese characters, that may be a problem). It goes there. You pay with a credit card or phone app or something. Maybe cash even, No tip presumably. If the address system is like Tokyo (buildings numbered in the order they were built), the last 100 meters or so of your journey may be a problem. But that's not the taxi's fault. And a human driver might well not be any better unless you share some common language.

        1. Sirius Lee

          Re: Robo drivers

          Don't language translation apps and smartphones work in automated taxis?

      2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

        YOU. WANT. TO. GO. SOUTH. OF. THE. RIV. VER. NOT. AT. THIS. TIME. OF. NIGHT. MATE.

        1. Androgynous Cupboard Silver badge

          Christ, can you imagine... "Beep boop, that Farage talks some sense doesn't he". Let's hope they limited the machine learning to navigating the roads and didn't set it loose on twitter.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Would you trust a robotaxi

    Not to swerve into the path of a HGV or deposit you at the wrong address (this sign says 'gulag', where are you taking me?) if it (mis-)identified you as an enemy of the Chinese state?

    Then again, any unperson in Beijing would be toast before they even made it into the taxi, I suspect.

    1. Jan 0 Silver badge

      Re: unperson -> gulag

      Are you in a country that practices or supports "extraordinary rendition"?

      1. fredblogggs

        Re: unperson -> gulag

        Assuming the people staffing the science stations in Antarctica are too busy right now to post here, the answer can only be yes.

  4. breakfast
    Terminator

    Where is the gap between words?

    Robo Taxis sound cute and fun but Robot Axis sounds quite sinister and we should really be careful to determine where the space goes before we endorse this idea.

  5. imanidiot Silver badge

    I don't feel the current tech is safe enough for either the taxi occupants or those around it on the streets. While the bar of the average asian taxi driver (I know, broad brush, it's not that bad everywhere, etc) is a pretty darn low standard to meet, I still think all these robot systems are only fine in "everything normal" situations. Throw in some bad road wear, a missing sign, some fog or smog, etc and things suddenly don't work so well anymore.

    1. Skiron

      You forgot two: Other idiot drivers and stupid pedestrians.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        There is a fix for stupid pedestrians, though. Bumpers and screen wipers :).

    2. batfink Silver badge

      You could have just left out "asian" in there. I've been in plenty of Mediterranean countries where the taxi rides have been "interesting".

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        My post above was based on visits to Birmingham, UK.

        1. batfink Silver badge

          Ah I see - confusion between what the Brits mean when they say "asian" - ie "south asian", and what everyone else thinks of, which the Brits would call either "oriental" or "far eastern".

          TBF I think the comments probably apply anyway (shudders at memories of tuk-tuk rides in Bangkok...).

          1. Denarius Silver badge

            New Delhi

            that brought back bad memories. Head on into big truck, missed by centimeters. Yes, robotaxis cant be much worse now I think about it. Perhaps they might even turn up on time, unlike human driven machines where 0630 means sometime before 1000

          2. Graham Newton

            Bangkok TukTuk

            In my experience one should remember that all bends should be attempted according to the teachings of the master -- Ayrton Senna @ Eau Rouge

      2. imanidiot Silver badge

        I've never been in a taxi in Mediterranean countries so can't really say anything on that. I have experienced the "driving on the hard shoulder, overtaking trucks, in the dark, with one headlight out, 30km/h over the speedlimit" and similar shenanigans in a few asian countries.

        1. toxicdragon

          Open sided Tuk-Tuk in tunisia during rush hour. Im convinced that you could still see my nail marks.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        First time in Odessa, I took a taxi.

        That was, um, "interesting" as it appears that pre-select lanes at traffic lights and the line in the middle of the road are merely vague suggestions. It's also apparently perfectly normal to have a car-sized deep hole in the middle lane of a 3 lane motorway with nothing more than a barrier pretty much on top of it.

        Yet, somehow this works which is IMHO the most amazing part of it all.

    3. Triggerfish

      Not sure about traffic in China, but when a robo-cab manages the flexibility to master traffic in India or Vietnam, we may be near true AI.

      1. the Jim bloke Silver badge
        Terminator

        You dont need flexibility, if your armour is heavy enough...

      2. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Bronze badge

        "Not sure about traffic in China, but when a robo-cab manages the flexibility to master traffic in India or Vietnam, we may be near true AI."

        How long would it take to build a fleet of robo-cabbies to do this? Would it be quicker I wonder, to build a fleet of taxi drivers using traditional unskilled labour? 10 years of intense training and they could be ready to go. With the added ability after a few more years of being able to replicate Von Neumann style.

        Might need some work on the ethics approval though.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      China wants to show the world how technologically advanced it is.

      China has a very, very large population.

      The Chinese government doesn't care about individuals.

      The Chinese government is prepared to move entire villages, even towns, to suit their infrastructure needs.

      I wonder how much they'll care if there are a few accidents? After all, with a population the size of Beijing, there are probably quite a few road traffic accidents every day. Will they care if the are more? On the other hand, maybe they got it right and there will be fewer accidents per mile driven? Maybe they are prepared (and have the power) to take the risk, while the Western democracies need to quantify a zero risk before letting robotaxis on the streets (or at least as close to zero as is economically viable giving the litigious nature of the people)

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The cynical side of me thinks that these taxis are running on stolen Waymo code anyway...

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      I thought what happened is American companies tested the tech on their own guinea pigs citizens and then exported it to the saner world in return for $$$$$.

      Leaking it to the Chinese so they can test it on their chattels of the state citizens first before it arrives on America's freeways would be an interesting innovation in their business model.

      1. veti Silver badge

        Well, for the past century or so the US has been in the lead of basically everything. That's not the case any more, the Chinese have caught up in some fields.

  7. Winkypop Silver badge
    Stop

    The fewer taxis I use in life the better

    As for robo taxis in Beijing.

    No.

    Have you seen the mad traffic there?

    Huge lorries mixed with cars, farm implements, tiny box cars and the ubiquitous scooter/moped.

    1. Nifty Silver badge

      Re: The fewer taxis I use in life the better

      Beijing is one of those cities where drivers play a game of 'nudge chicken' to change lanes, using the horn as a proximity alert. Are robo taxis really up for that?

  8. Captain Scarlet
    Unhappy

    I would take whats more convenient tbh

    I say I want to support human workers, but if I am honest I like going to a taxi rank and getting a ride immediately.

    Once also in The Netherlands my phone dropped out of my pocket whilst going to Rotterdam airport, I was returning home and our office who had arranged had closed. Chap very kindly found it and dropped it off to our office. Robo taxi's will probably be behind a lifeless multinational corp who would probably not care

    1. ravenviz

      Re: I would take whats more convenient tbh

      They will care

      That you’re there

      Paying your fare

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: I would take whats more convenient tbh

      I suspect the lifeless multinational will have a decently functional lost property office.

      When I lost my Nintendo DS in a taxi in Sydney, I spent hours trying to get it back but the driver and the company denied all knowledge. Humans can be nice, but it's not a universal law. At least robots will probably be honest.

  9. colinb

    Will it be the full experience?

    Can't wait, especially when it has the full GPP (Genuine People Personality) software

    - Endless chatting, normally about how bad/busy work is, post covid behind a screen with the driver wearing a mask I normally can't hear 60% of what they say so just have to nod aimlessly.

    - mindless driving to get onto the next job, racing up behind cars in traffic and then pulling out not indicating. Love the cutting across to the exit lane at the last minute move.

    - super heated cars to the drivers comfort, think sauna level

    - continuous playing of crap radio stations, Heart FM, Talk radio seem popular. Low enough to annoy but not to actually hear properly.

    - no local knowledge so weird long routes via SatNav since it prefers Motorways at all costs.

    1. Skiron
      Headmaster

      Re: Will it be the full experience?

      That's called Johnny Cab. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWgrvNHjKkY

    2. LateAgain

      Re: Will it be the full experience?

      Share and Enjoy

  10. TeeCee Gold badge
    WTF?

    Pricing.

    ...comparable to existing premium ride-hailing services.

    So they don't have to pay a driver, but they're going to charge the same anyway.

    My, naked corporate greed really has caught on over there, hasn't it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Pricing.

      Naked amoral greed caught on in China millennia before Europe invented the corporation. I have little doubt that the second human to arrive in China killed the first, took his home, and pronounced himself emperor for life without suffering even a glimmer of moral doubt. Thus it's been ever since. Chinese government officials, pirates, military commanders, and corporate thugs -- usually all four in the same person -- are in a class all their own. They've engaged in theft, plunder, and organised extraction of wealth through brutal violence on a scale that makes the most avaricious Europeans look like ineffectual children.

      Your East India Companies plundered what would now be billions of euros from hapless natives killed off or ruined by brutal colonial policies, and took 3 centuries to do it; the Chinese have plundered trillions in the same manner in the last decade alone. Your pirates killed a few thousand sailors and stole the cargoes of perhaps several hundred ships while sailing either alone or with a handful of like-minded consorts; at two different times, a Chinese pirate controlled a fleet of more than 400 ships and effectively taxed or captured all commercial traffic to or from central and southern China... for decades; one briefly took over the entire Chinese navy. Hitler's Germany needed 6 years to kill perhaps 7 million people, stealing their land and money for themselves. Mao's China killed more than that number of civilian "enemies" each year from 1958 to 1962, distributing their wealth to high-ranking Communists without apology. Unless you have studied China, you can understand neither greed nor the scale and depth of vicious depravity to which humans can sink in their efforts to satiate it.

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: Pricing.

      So you're saying all that software development, integration and testing should be free?

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "don't think they're safe yet"

    Where's the option without the "yet"? We've been working with computers for about 80 years now and I've never seen the first shred of evidence either that this is a class of problems machines can be programmed to solve or that governments are fit to regulate their use in safety-critical applications (and for completeness, self-regulation by corporations is lolno).

    It's possible using today's technology to build a controlled-access roadway on which vehicles carry passengers on a track; there are numerous such systems in active use and they are safe and reliable. The track need not even be mechanical; automated factories and warehouses use robotic vehicles that follow strips of tape, infrared light, and any number of other guidance systems. All of these systems work because they are controlled-access: the only objects that will be encountered are supposed to be there, and anomalies are sufficiently rare that the system can be shut down immediately if one is detected. Most of them are also indoors or in other climate-controlled environments, kept free of hazards and debris. The bottom line is that all the difficult elements of the problem have been eliminated by construction: unpredictable pedestrians and cyclists, locations with limited or no "visibility" (whatever that means to a particular machine), road hazards, dangerous weather, human drivers, and constructing and following routes. Even mechanical failure is mitigated by frequent maintenance carried out by a team of trained mechanics, something no one who has ever been in a taxi could possibly expect of them. The resulting set of problems is sufficiently limited that computer programs can be written to solve them safely and more or less reliably, and this we have done.

    It is a characteristic failure of our age to look upon an enviably efficient solution to a specific narrow problem, then in arrogant ignorance conclude that the general problem is not appreciably more challenging and will admit to similar solutions. The technology we have today isn't 80% of the solution; it's probably not even 8% of it. Without purpose-built controlled-access environments with reliable guidance mechanisms and frequent maintenance, it will not be possible for the forseeable future to build an autonomous vehicle capable of providing safe, reliable transportation. One or the other of safety and reliability will be compromised, likely both.

    I won't ride in a robotic taxi on public roads, and I won't walk or cycle on public roads that allow them. Even if I live another 40 or 50 years, I do not expect any reason to alter this policy, and I am perfectly satisfied to build a stout wall about by home and remain inside should that ever be the only way to achieve this. Thankfully, no one has yet been sufficiently insane as to even propose testing such vehicles outside a few large warm-weather cities. How surprising.

  12. Gene Cash Silver badge
    Stop

    Safer

    Robot taxi has to be safer than my driver that spent most of her time reading her paperback.

  13. pip25
    WTF?

    "pick-up and drop-off points"

    How's that a taxi? I mean, how is that different from taking the bus?

    1. veti Silver badge

      Re: "pick-up and drop-off points"

      It travels on request rather than on schedule, you get a private seat, and I'm guessing there are a lot of drop off points. In principle there could be one for each building.

  14. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    will run from 07:00 to 22:00

    Really? Are the RoboTaxi unions already that strong? I thought the point of a RoboTaxi was that it could run 24/7 without needing a break other than for charging, cleaning or maintenance.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: will run from 07:00 to 22:00

      I was thinking the same.

      Maybe it's because the taxi needs to be able to alert a meatball if it gets itself into a sticky situation that it doesn't understand.

      Maybe it's because the passengers need to be able to phone up a call centre if something goes wrong.

      Maybe it's because the taxi isn't able to detect if a drunk has thrown up on the back seat.

    2. veti Silver badge

      Re: will run from 07:00 to 22:00

      Charging, cleaning and maintenance take time. And maybe the Chinese govt doesn't want to encourage its citizens to stay out late.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    punters must now pay the machine for a ride. Would you?

    Depends who's riding it, I suppose.

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