China search engine giant Baidu Inc said on Monday it has obtained permits to operate fully driverless robotaxi services on open roads from two Chinese cities, the first of their kind in the country.
The permits, awarded by the southwestern municipality of Chongqing and the central city of Wuhan, allow commercial robotaxis to offer rides to the public without human safety drivers in the car. They come into effect on Monday.
Baidu said they marked a "turning point" in China's policy-making towards autonomous driving.
"These permits have deep significance for the industry," Wei Dong, chief safety operation officer of Baidu's Intelligent Driving Group, told Reuters in an interview. "If we think of the exploration of space, this moment is equal to landing on the moon."
At first, Baidu will deploy a batch of five fee-charging robotaxis in each city, where they will be allowed to operate in designated areas from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Wuhan and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Chongqing, the company said in a statement.
The service areas span 30 square km (11.58 square miles) in Chongqing's Yongchuan District and 13 sq km in the Wuhan Economic & Technological Development Zone.
In April, Baidu's Apollo and Toyota Motor Corp-backed (7203.T) Pony.ai said that they received permits in Beijing to deploy robotaxis without safety drivers in the driver's seat on open roads within a 60 sq km area. But the Beijing permits still require them to have a safety driver in the passenger seat. These services have started.
Baidu is also in talks with local governments in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, to secure licenses within a year to test fully-driverless and unpaid robotaxis in those cities, according to Wei.
China's efforts to fast-track autonomous vehicle trials and permits come as U.S. regulators are also pushing ahead with milestone-setting autonomous driving policies.
In January, self-driving company Cruise received a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission that allows it to offer paid and fully driverless rides from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in select streets in San Francisco.
Apollo Go, Baidu's robotaxi service, has operated over 1 million rides across 10 Chinese cities since its launch in 2020.
Baidu has not reported any problems with the service and has not given a breakdown for how much it has invested in the project.