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Self-driving car startup AutoX today announced that a portion of its robo-taxi fleet in Shenzhen, China is ferrying customers without teleoperators or safety drivers behind the wheel. The company claims it’s the first set of fully driverless cars to be deployed in China and perhaps only the second in operation following the launch of Waymo’s fully driverless program in Phoenix, Arizona last year.

Driverless vehicle technology has already begun to transform whole industries. TuSimpleEinride, and others have raised tens of millions of dollars for autonomous systems that transport logs, shipping containers, customers, and other precious cargo. Some experts predict the coronavirus outbreak will hasten adoption of autonomous delivery solutions. Despite the public’s misgivings about self-driving cars and the vehicles’ need for regular disinfection, they promise to minimize the spread of disease by limiting driver-rider contact.

AutoX, which has been conducting driverless tests in Shenzhen and Shanghai for the past year, says that as many as 25 of its robo-taxis are now operating without safety drivers. They’re equipped with the company’s fifth-generation system, which packs sensing technology including lidar sensors, radars, and “blind spot-sensing suites” that AutoX claims can handle dense traffic scenarios involving pedestrians, cyclists, and pets at close range.

“Currently, the fully driverless Robotaxi fleet is not offering rides to the public yet. The RoboTaxi rides are private, so the passengers would already be aware that the ride would be driverless,” a spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “We plan to continuously increase the fully driverless fleet size, and are working closely with our partners and municipal offices towards this goal … We are continuously scaling up to more cities. Currently, we are already deployed in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Wuhu, Guangzhou, and San Jose. We have accumulated millions of miles with over 100 autonomous vehicles.”

AutoX formally launched its commercial robo-taxi service, RoboTaxi, in August. It first became available in the Jiading District, starting with a fleet of 100 vehicles. Rides can be booked through Alibaba’s AutoNavi mapping and navigation app and Leztgo, a Shanghai-based taxi fleet service. (Letzgo’s staff runs RoboTaxis at AutoX’s Shanghai operations center, which opened in April.)

AutoX was founded by former Princeton University assistant professor Xiao Jianxiong, who also serves as the company’s CEO. Xiao launched AutoX in 2016 with the goal of “democratizing” autonomy through a full-stack system called AI Driver, which contained solid-state lidar sensors, high-definition cameras, and a computer that acts as the brains of the system. He often claims that part of the company’s secret sauce is a custom-designed control unit dubbed the XCU, which ostensibly delivers faster processing speed and more computational capability than competing solutions.

In July, AutoX became the third company after Waymo and Nuro to obtain a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) authorizing it to test fully self-driving vehicles on streets within a designated part of San Jose. It followed AutoX’s August 2018 autonomous grocery delivery pilot in San Jose in partnership with GrubMarket.com and local grocery store DeMartini Orchard.

AutoX claims to be the first autonomous car startup in China to deploy self-driving vehicles that can reach speeds upwards of 50 miles per hour and one of the first whose vehicles are connected to Shanghai’s 5G-based vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) technology, which enables them to communicate with road infrastructure and traffic lights. The company, which is backed by Alibaba and based in Hong Kong, has secured over $160.1 million in venture capital financing to date from investors including Plug and Play Ventures, Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, and Dongfeng Motor Group.

In January, AutoX, which competes domestically with Pony.ai, Baidu, WeRide, Didi, and others, said it would partner with Fiat Chrysler to roll out robo-taxi services both within China and other countries in Asia. And last year, AutoX announced a collaboration with NEVS to deploy an autonomous taxi pilot in Europe by the end of 2020.

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