Didi Chuxing has demonstrated a self-driving car for the first time as the Chinese car-booking group steps up its battle with Uber to control the future of inner-city taxi services.
The test shows that Didi, which has 20m rides a day booked through its app, is aiming to have a self-driving service on the roads in the coming years to compete with Western tech rivals.
Uber is testing self-driving cars in several US cities, with the aim of launching a fully autonomous fleet service as early as next year.
Uber bowed to competition with Didi by merging its Chinese operations with the company in 2016, but the two groups remain fierce global rivals, with Didi making investments in many of Uber’s chief competitors, from Lyft in the US and Taxify in Europe to Grab in Southeast Asia.
Didi confirmed the test, but declined to give more details of the vehicle beyond saying that it had designed the software for the car and made the pilot car’s hardware in collaboration with carmakers and suppliers. It also declined to give a timeline for launching an autonomous ride service.
Bob Zhang, chief technology officer of Didi, said: “Self-driving technology will greatly raise the efficiency of transport, and will be an effective way of filling in the gaps in supply in transport services.”
Demonstrating the vehicle is a key step forward as Didi grapples with a technology shift that has the potential to reshape the economics of minicab fleets.
Car-booking companies are racing to develop autonomous technology as a way of reducing driver costs and increasing profits in a price-sensitive market.
“Any leader in ride-sharing must be in a leader in autonomous technology,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a recent note.
Many of the world’s largest carmakers are also developing similar technology.
General Motors has said it intends to roll out a self-driving taxi fleet in the US in 2019. Waymo, the company seen by analysts as furthest ahead in developing driverless vehicles, has promised to launch a fully self-driving car service later this year.
Many of the self-driving vehicles being tested are based on current production models that are then augmented with sensors and technology. Waymo is using Chrysler minivans, and Uber is buying Volvo sports utility vehicles.
Didi is seen as a latecomer to self-driving technology. Its self-driving team, based in Mountain View, California, is only a year and a half old. But the company says it sees this as a research priority.
“Despite the fact we have been low-key about it in public, we are heavily invested in autonomous driving,” said Mr Zhang. “We have a large team continually running tests in three cities across the US and China.”
Google’s Waymo and Baidu’s Apollo are seen as market leaders in self-driving technology but Didi has a different edge in the market: it operates a car-booking service, and gathers data from the 20m rides it serves per day.
“Baidu and Google mainly provide solutions and software, but after all, they need to rely on a fleet, which is exactly the advantage Didi already has,” said Ron Zheng, partner at consultancy Roland Berger. “Didi’s core strengths are its well-established user entry channel, as well as a large amount of ride trip data.”
Didi’s news follows an announcement earlier this week that it has signed electric-vehicle partnerships with 12 carmakers, including foreign companies such as Kia and the Renault-Nissan Alliance. It announced on Friday it was entering Japan in a partnership with its major investor SoftBank, to provide ride-hailing software for taxis.
“Self-driving technology will be very important in the ride-hailing sector in the long run, since one of the most important and volatile factors that platforms find difficult to control is the supply of drivers,” said Bao Jun, car analyst at iReseach, a market research firm.
Source: Financial Times