Robotaxi startup Pony.ai receives the first green light for taxi license in China

Robotaxi startup Pony.ai receives the first green light for taxi license in China. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT

Robotaxi startup Pony.ai receives the first green light for taxi license in China

  • Toyota-backed Pony.ai said it was awarded the license to operate 100 vehicles in the Guangzhou city district of Nansha, the first autonomous driving company in the country to do so.
  • Pony.ai will initially deploy driverless cars with safety drivers but expects to remove them ‘over the short to intermediate time frame.

In November 2021, self-driving startup Pony.ai won the approval to launch paid driverless robotaxi services in an area in China’s capital Beijing. That approval however only allows the firm to deploy not more than 100 vehicles in the designated area. Less than five months later, Pony.ai obtained a taxi license in China, allowing some of its driverless vehicles to start charging fares.

The Toyota Motor Corp-backed company was the first autonomous driving company in China to receive such a license, according to Pony.ai. The license would allow the startup to operate 100 driverless vehicles in the Guangzhou city district of Nansha. In contrast, for its services in Beijing however, rides are being offered in a much smaller, industrial zone and on a trial basis.

In Nansha, Pony.ai, with its driverless car, will start charging fares in the entire 800 square km of the district. Passengers can hail and pay for rides with Pony.ai’s own app, the company said in a statement. Notably, the self-driving company will initially deploy 100 of their cars with safety drivers but expects to remove them “over the short to intermediate time frame,” they said.

Pony.ai also noted riders can hail and pay for rides from the company’s app between 8:30AM to 10:30PM, and that its fares will align with the “standard taxi pricing” in Guangzhou. When the Chinese startup gained approval in November— but not a license — it was to operate 67 vehicles in Beijing. It is not just in China that Pony.ai has been actively testing in. 

The company also has been working to establish a presence in the US, a prospect set back after one of its autonomous vehicles crashed in California last December, resulting in its permit getting suspended. The company had been testing its vehicles in the state since 2017 and received a permit to operate its vehicles without drivers last year.

Pony.ai also has plans to expand its commercialized robotaxi footprint to the other two Tier-1 cities in China next year and to more cities by the start of Pony.ai’s mass commercialization planned for 2024/2025. Overall, up till now, Pony.ai has autonomous vehicle testing and operations in all four of China’s Tier-1 cities and in California.

To qualify for the license, Pony.ai had to pass stringent safety and other multifaceted vehicle qualification tests set forth by national inspection institutions, such as having at least 24 months of AD testing in China and/or other countries, at least one million kilometers of testing mileage, at least 200,000 kilometers of AD testing within Guangzhou’s designated test area, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents.

That said, Pony.ai is the first autonomous driving company to have met all of these requirements and standards. Reports claim that as of mid-April 2022, Pony.ai’s robotaxi service has completed more than 700,000 orders, with nearly 80% repeat users.

Autonomous driving in China especially has been gaining traction especially in 2021 when the industry saw a period of unprecedented acceleration. Last year alone, over US$8.5 billion were invested in robotaxi startups, self-driving truck developers, lidar makers, smart electric car manufacturers, and chipmakers focused on vehicle automation, according to Crunchbase.

The country as a whole has also redoubled efforts within the autonomous driving sector: issuing regulations and policies that will facilitate the development of the industry, and supporting self-driving car developers to undertake more testing.