Shenzhen – On a busy city street, three delivery bikes suddenly crashed into the pedestrian crossing in front of the car. The car’s dashboard looks like a little 3D blue block from a 1990s video game.
The steering wheel turns a notch, and the vehicle slows to a halt while the safety driver watches from the passenger seat.
The vehicle is one of a hundred sensor-laden robotaxis belonging to start-up DeepRoute.ai, giving passengers 50,000 test rides in the past year, cruising the dense central Futian business district in China’s southern tech hub Shenzhen.
While the United States is regarded as an early lead in testing autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, in Shenzhen, the industry is changing gears, with test robotaxis becoming an increasingly common sight.
Baidu Inc.’s Apollo unit, the Toyota Motor Corp.-backed Pony, the Nissan-backed Vyride, Alibaba-backed Auto X and DeProte are all running tests while navigating the complex environment of the city with frequent jaywalkers and the ubiquitous e-scooters.
Shenzhen, a city of 18 million, has now brought China’s clearest AV regulations. Starting Monday, registered AVs will be allowed to operate without a driver in the driving seat in a wide area of the city, but a driver must still be in the vehicle.
So far, Chinese cities have allowed Robotaxis to operate on a more limited basis with the permission of local authorities. Nevertheless, Shenzhen’s regulations do, for the first time, provide an essential framework for liability in the event of an accident.
If the AV has a driver behind the wheel, the driver will be liable for an accident. If the car is completely driverless, the vehicle owner will be responsible. If a defect causes an accident, the car owner can seek compensation from the manufacturer.
“If you want more cars, eventually there will be accidents, so these regulations are significant for mass deployment,” said Maxwell Zhou, DeepRoute’s CEO, speaking at the company’s offices in a tech park near the Hong Kong border.
“This is not true driverless, but it’s a big milestone.”