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China’s cities will soon be crawling with self-driving robotaxis

As the taxi drove itself through Shenzhen’s bustling streets, Bill Russo marveled from the passenger seat. Be it a scooter making a u-turn in front of the robotaxi, or a nearby driver who decided to go straight instead of following the legal left or right turns marked on the road, there was no shortage of obstacles for the self-driving car.

Granted, there was a flesh and blood driver behind the wheel of the vehicle, which is part of startup AutoX’s autonomous car pilot program that publicly launched in China mid-August, but he would only take control in an emergency. However, Russo, who is the chairman of the Automotive Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, says AutoX’s AI was so effective that the emergency driver “never had to intervene” during the 70-minute ride. That level of sophistication is needed for companies like AutoX and Didi, the ride-hailing company which also recently launched a competing AV pilot program in China. That’s because, according to Russo, “Companies in China… are trying to do the black diamond, to use a skiing metaphor, and not a bunny hill.”

Such companies could gather even more momentum thanks to a slew of infrastructure investment that the Chinese government announced earlier this year. That includes a 62-mile expressway connecting Beijing and neighboring Xiong’an that has several lanes dedicated to autonomous cars and was built by driverless construction vehicles. The paving was completed in mid-August and the road will officially open in 2021.

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