Xu Baoqiang, general manager of Baidu Autonomous Driving Vehicle manager, briefs the media on the Apollo RT6, a fully electric vehicle with an “optional” steering wheel that can be removed or installed if necessary, on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Beijing. Chinese search engine and artificial intelligence company Baidu unveiled its latest self-driving electric vehicle on Thursday (July 21st) which it says will soon be part of its robotaxi fleet, as China moves forward with its autonomous driving ambitions.

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

HONG KONG (AP) — Baidu, a Chinese search engine and artificial intelligence company, unveiled its latest self-driving electric vehicle on Thursday.

The Apollo RT6 will soon be part of Baidu’s robotaxi fleet as China pursues its self-driving ambitions. It’s a fully electric vehicle with a steering wheel that can be removed or installed if needed, and will cost 250,000 yuan ($37,000) per unit.

“This massive cost reduction will allow us to deploy tens of thousands of autonomous vehicles across China,” Robin Li, co-founder and CEO of Baidu, said Thursday at the company’s Baidu World conference.

“We are heading towards a future where taking a robotaxi will cost half the price of a taxi today.”

Baidu already runs Apollo Go, an autonomous ride service using self-driving robotaxis with security personnel sitting in the driver or passenger seat. It has launched Apollo Go in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, although the service is limited to specific areas.

The RT6 has also achieved industry level 4 out of five possible technology levels. This means its systems can operate without a driver but must be pre-loaded with a detailed map, limiting the areas where vehicles can operate.

Lower technology levels range from cruise control, a feature that’s been available for decades, all the way down to level 3, which enables hands-free driving on the highway. Autonomous robot carts are already widely used in factories, warehouses and other tightly controlled environments.

The Apollo RT6 was designed specifically with autonomous driving in mind, compared to previous generations where technology was modernized on conventional vehicles, the company said.

The steering wheel-less design provides more space for the installation of additional seats or other additions, even a game console or vending machine.

Baidu is best known for its search engine and online advertising services, but in recent years it has invested heavily in self-driving and artificial intelligence technology, including automated personal assistants and AI chips.

China aspires to become the world leader in self-driving technology, but lags behind the United States in introducing such services. Alphabet’s Waymo began offering driverless taxi services in Phoenix, Arizona in 2020.

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