Baidu self-driving car with detachable steering wheel likely to hit China's roads in 2023

The Apollo RT6 is almost half the price of its predecessor and has the skills of a driver with 20 years' experience, says manufacturer

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Baidu, China's search engine equivalent of Google, has introduced its latest self-driving car, which is fitted with a detachable steering wheel.

The company says the battery-powered Apollo RT6 will significantly reduce the cost of public transport.

With a price tag of 250,000 yuan ($37,000), it is almost half the price of the Apollo Moon that was launched last year.

Its technology has the skills of a human driver with 20 years' experience and the vehicle has travelled a distance of 32 million kilometres in testing, the Beijing-based company said at its annual conference on Thursday.

Chinese driving regulations do not currently allow autonomous vehicles on the road without a steering wheel. Manual override is required for safety reasons.

A further testing phase is being planned for the RT6 before 100,000 units of it join the fleet of Baidu's ride-hailing robotaxi service, Apollo Go, by the second half of 2023, Baidu added.

“This massive cost reduction will enable us to deploy tens of thousands of AVs across China,” Robin Li, the company's chief executive and co-founder, said at Baidu World 2022.

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

Some major electric vehicle manufacturers have already introduced driverless cars without steering wheels, including General Motors' Bolt EV in 2018 and a Tesla Model 3 in 2019. Apple is also said to be designing its own version.

However, questions on their safety have been a nagging issue, with high-profile accidents — including fatalities — involving some big names.

Last month in the US, authorities escalated an investigation on 200 crashes involving Tesla's Autopilot technology.

However, in March, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration changed a rule to allow companies to deliver vehicles without steering wheels or pedals. The levels of vehicle autonomy run from 0 to 5, with the last not requiring steering wheels or pedals.

This rule could be advantageous for companies in terms of costs and materials, as it will allow them to retrofit existing vehicles instead of building new ones.

The global autonomous car market is expected to grow to 62.4 million units by 2030 from 20.3 million units in 2021 at a compound annual rate of 13.3 per cent, data from MarketsandMarkets shows.

The sector's value is expected to grow more than 31 per cent and exceed $11.03 billion through 2028, according to Fortune Business Insights.

Baidu's Apollo RT6 during its unveiling in Beijing. A testing phase is being planned for the sixth-generation vehicle before it joins the fleet of Baidu's ride-hailing robotaxi service, Apollo Go, by the second half 2023. AFP

Baidu's decision to use a detachable steering wheel is a future-proof move. Once Chinese driving regulations prohibiting AVs without steering wheels are eased or lifted, the company can easily remove them.

This will provide more space to “craft unique interiors, allowing for the installation of extra seating, vending machines, desktops, or gaming consoles”, the company said.

Baidu said the Apollo RT6 uses its own level-4 autonomous driving system — the level below full automation. It still requires steering wheels and pedals, but human intervention is only required during adverse road conditions.

The vehicle uses 38 sensors, including eight light detection and ranging remote sensors and 12 cameras, to obtain “highly accurate, long-range detection on all sides”, the company said.

Updated: July 21, 2022, 11:46 AM