Baidu’s Robotaxi Nears Profitability, While US Peers Are Stuck in Neutral

The company started operating some fully driverless robotaxi rides in September 2023, and said 45% of Q4 orders were fully driverless models.

Photo of a Baidu car on display
Photo by Kentaro IEMOTO via CC BY-SA 2.0

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While American robotaxis spin their wheels, China’s raring to go.

Baidu, the Beijing-based tech giant sometimes referred to as “China’s Google,” said Wednesday that it projects its Apollo Go robotaxi business will start turning a profit as soon as next year. This is a bit of a kick in the teeth for US robotaxi wannabes, a couple of whom were just hit with regulatory investigations. Honestly, your cars hit one or two or 20 objects and the killjoys in Washington get all worked up…

A Few Speed Bumps

Robotaxis are a subset of the drive toward autonomous vehicles, offering the promise of summoning an autonomous car to take you to your destination. It’s a business that Google, Uber, Tesla, and Amazon are all dying to jump-start, but it’s been a sticky process. Autonomous driving isn’t exactly a 100% solved problem yet, so the early stages of getting AVs out into the world have been an experiment that uses real people as test subjects which… has some ethical complexities. That means regulators are extra sensitive to accidents that involve AVs, and there have been some fatalities.

The few robotaxi services that operate in the US do so in limited geographical areas, and often with human drivers sitting in the front seat, ready to intervene if the car does anything unpredictable. Some companies have reached the point though where they operate without that safety net, but regulators might be about to rain on that parade:

  • Google’s self-driving car company Waymo operates robotaxis with no one in the driver’s seat in San Francisco and Phoenix, and this week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into 22 incidents that involved Waymo’s cars, including crashes and fires.
  • The NHTSA also launched an investigation into Zoox, a self-driving startup that was acquired by Amazon in 2020, over two incidents of unexpected braking that caused rear-end collisions with motorcyclists.

A Visit From the Overheads Fairy: Baidu also started operating some fully driverless robotaxi rides in September 2023, and announced that 45% of orders in Q4 of last year were the totally driverless kind. It also announced that it’s figured out how to more than halve the cost of its cars to around $28,160. That’s got to be a big help for its bottom line.