Road test: Chinese ‘robotaxis’ take riders for a spin

A Didi Chuxing autonomous taxi, center, during a pilot test drive in Shanghai. (AFP)
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Updated 10 August 2020

Road test: Chinese ‘robotaxis’ take riders for a spin

  • Hired-car format to be the key to unlocking wide acceptance of futuristic technology

SHANGHAI: Chinese entrants in the race to put autonomous vehicles on the road are bringing “robotaxis” online in hopes that a hired-car format can be the key to unlocking wide acceptance of the futuristic technology.

It is expected to be years before cars that operate completely without human intervention are unleashed owing to lingering technological, regulatory, and safety hurdles.

But as China challenges US tech dominance, Chinese players such as Baidu, Alibaba-backed AutoX and ride-sharing king DiDi Chuxing recently launched autonomous taxi pilot projects in cities around the country.

Similar efforts are underway in the US, and AutoX’s CEO Xiao Jianxiong told AFP the first fully autonomous vehicles could be on the roads by the end of the year.

Robotaxis or delivery services are considered ideal for accumulating the driving time and huge data cache needed for cars to “learn” and become safe enough.

Chinese consumers — known for eagerly embracing e-commerce, online payments and other digital solutions — are lining up for a spin in DiDi Chuxing’s self-developed autonomous taxis in a Shanghai pilot project launched in June.

Underlining the work-in-progress nature of the concept, a DiDi staffer occupies the driver’s seat, ready to take the wheel if needed.

But Da Xuan, a 24-year-old social-media worker, leapt at a taste of the future.

“I heard companies like Uber or Tesla were doing autonomous driving, so I was curious what Chinese companies were doing, whether they can go into production, and if so, what will the (riding) experience be like,” she said.

“It was very smooth,” Da said, adding that she would feel safe in such a car. Test subjects use DiDi’s mobile app to plot a ride through suburban roads in a Volvo fitted with a crown of tech hardware topped by a spinning radar device.

The vehicle confidently sets out, accelerating, braking, signaling and turning on its own in real traffic as a female voice calmly narrates: “Yielding for crosswalk”; “Your car has been disinfected.”

When a large truck abruptly swerved in front, DiDi’s AI driver smoothly applied the brake.

An Apollo Robotaxi safety driver sits without touching the wheel. (AFP)

Like any student driver, however, it still needs practice.

At one stop sign, it braked so abruptly that passengers lurched forward.

And any impromptu deviation from the plotted route requires human intervention.

But Meng Xing, COO of DiDi’s autonomous driving company, told AFP its AI system “is already smart enough to handle most of the situations,” and safety drivers almost never need to touch the steering wheel or brakes.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, known for his overly rosy predictions, raised eyebrows in July by saying the US electric carmaker could have a completely autonomous car ready this year, which analysts have dismissed.

Paul Lewis, who heads policy research at the Washington-based nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation, told AFP that hopes are being “reset” as the pace of the technology’s development disappoints.

“Technology developers are starting to realize the limits of artificial intelligence and the benefits of the human brain in handling some of these tasks,” he said, adding we remain “a long way” from driverless cars.

But Xiao of AutoX expects a “sizeable” deployment of the vehicles — without safety drivers — could take place in 2 to 3 years, with regulations and technology being the main obstacles.

“It’s just a matter of time and effort to make it happen,” he said. “There are no open scientific questions left to be solved.”

Tech giant Baidu has plans for autonomous car testing bases in more than 10 Chinese cities including Beijing, with a 45-strong robotaxi fleet already on trial in central China’s Changsha city, plying an area of around 130 square km.

Its Apollo Park in the capital, which opened this year, has more than 200 vehicles while Apollo general manager Li Zhenyu told employees in a letter that “the era of unmanned driving in traffic will definitely arrive.”

A Didi executive said in June that the ride-hailing giant aims to operate more than a million self-driving cars by 2030.

“What we are trying to solve is the last 0.5 percent of problems ... we believe in the future, we’ll be able to get to that point where we can provide a safer experience than a human driver.”

Indonesia turns focus to energy security and renewables amid pandemic

Updated 24 November 2020

Indonesia turns focus to energy security and renewables amid pandemic

  • Govt. aims to use of opportunity presented by COVID-19 outbreak to make transition

JAKARTA: The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has presented Indonesia with the opportunity to work toward energy security and switch from conventional to renewable sources, officials have said.

“Indonesia has made various breakthroughs such as making use of biodiesel B30,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said during an online press conference on Sunday, quoting President Joko Widodo’s address during the G20 Summit.

“(We) will be conducting tests on green diesel D100 from palm oil – which will absorb 1 million tons of palm oil produced by farmers – and also install rooftop solar power plants in hundreds of thousands of households,” he added.

Widodo also made a reference to data from the World Economic Forum on the massive potential of the green economy, which could generate up to $10.1 trillion and create 395 million new jobs by 2030.

Earlier this month on Nov. 4, energy and mineral resources minister Arifin Tasrif said that the current difficulties posed by the pandemic had spurred Indonesia to accelerate the energy transition, by developing renewable energy, ensure efficiency and work toward maintaining energy security for lasting energy independence.

Energy security and its steady supply were some of the top concerns voiced by Tasrif during the G20 energy ministers’ meeting in September.

“COVID-19 has created an economic crisis and shrunk energy demands. All G20 members must work together to ensure that the energy market is stabilized and maintain supply affordability. These are a top priority for Indonesia,” Tasrif said at the meeting.

He also lauded Saudi Arabia, the summit host, for pushing ahead with the 4Rs issue – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Remove – in the circular carbon economy (CCE) concept, which was endorsed by the energy ministers after their meetings.

Tasrif said the issue was an “important part of reintroducing the role of biofuel and hydrogen in the CCE platform,” and in line with Indonesia’s adoption of the mandatory use of biodiesel – containing 30 percent palm oil and known as B30 – from January this year, specifically in the transport, power plant, industrial and commercial sectors.

Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, has set a target to use 23 percent of renewable energy by 2025 and 50 percent by 2050, as part of its national energy mix plan.

The government has listed provisions for renewable energy and its conservation among its seven priority programs for next year and allocated 16.7 billion rupiahs ($1.2 million) for environmental preservation efforts in the 2021 budget.

“Our state budget is very much pro-green ... The government is already on the right track with the implementation of energy transition policy,” Arif Budimanta, a special presidential staff on economic affairs, said during an online discussion recently.

He added that President Joko Widodo had been very “hands-on” with the implementation of the energy transition policy and was directly supervising the progress of the policy.

Government officials claimed that the adoption of B30’s mandatory use – the first in the world – has been successful.

However, its target this year had reduced from the initial 9.5 million kilolitres to 8.3 million kilolitres, with 6 million kilolitres realized so far.

Mandatory use is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 16.9 million tons.

“The switch to a biodiesel program, which has been in place since 2015, has been able to replace almost 25 million liters of imported fossil fuel by June this year, and we have been able to save foreign exchange spending by roughly equivalent of 127 trillion rupiahs,” Eddy Abdurrachman, head of the Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Agency said during a recent webinar.

Static tests on diesel engines for 1,000 hours of use of the biodiesel blend are underway at the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry’s research and development lab.

The head of the research and development agency, Dadan Kusdiana, said on Aug. 26 that scientists had managed to conduct studies on the lab’s engine test bench after the COVID-19 outbreak restricted them from testing on the roads.

“We expect to wrap up the tests by the end of the year,” Kusdiana said.