A guest post from Yuting Shi, former MSc student in Science, Technology and Society at UCL
I recently took one of Baidu’s self-driving taxis in Beijing. Despite its name, there is still a driver on the vehicle, taking over when necessary. The passenger-carrying road test for “Apollo Go” has been happening free of charge in three suburbs of Beijing since October 2020. I was in “Beijing E Town”, about 20 km from the city centre. There are two types of vehicle collaborating with Baidu to be the body of the driverless car: Hongqi E-HS3 (a Chinese-branded electric vehicle) and Lincoln MKZ, among which, Hongqi is still in the pre-test stage and only Lincoln is available to the public. Baidu, a Chinese internet giant, has provided the intelligent system and sensors for “Apollo Go”. On the top of each vehicle is a shelf carrying sensors to detect further obstacles. Since passengers were not allowed to take photos, all photos in this blog are from CNR News, China’s largest news media.
Compared with the fear I felt when driving a vehicle in autopilot mode a few days ago, I felt relaxed, even a little bored in the “Apollo Go”. However, the 7.4km driverless journey also exposed many limitations of the technology.
An enjoyable user-interface
Hailing an Apollo Go was simple. On the home page of Baidu Map (similar to Google Maps), there is a “Taxi” option. Clicking on it, passengers can choose “automatic driving”, and then choose the nearby pickup location and destinations. It’s very similar to hailing a taxi, the only difference being that, for now, passengers have to get on and get off the driverless taxi at designated locations, making it more like a shuttle than a taxi.
However, after I took 3 minutes to hail an Apollo Go, I spent 30 minutes waiting for it. The driver explained that most vehicles were around a new testing site, a 10-minute drive from my pickup location. Given the limited number of automatic vehicles, I can forgive waiting longer than usual, but I have advised Baidu to add a “tracing taxi” function on the app in the feedback call, so that passengers can see nearby taxis, and choose a better pickup spot.
Each vehicle has a driver in the driver’s seat to take over when necessary. Passengers sit in the back with a touchscreen. I scanned a QR code for identification and pressed a “start the journey” button at the bottom of the screen. During the journey, the screen showed the moving elements around the vehicle: pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and trucks. Each type was marked with a different shape and color. I was gratified by the fact that it was hard to detect a delay on the real-time update screen.
Cautious, low-speed driving
Some drivers switch the car into manual mode during their test-driving However, in my experience, the car drove itself from the beginning to the end, which was beyond my expectation. The driver rested his hands on the steering wheel and his foot on the brake, paying attention to the road. My driver was confident about the vehicle and told me that, after rebuilding and long-term training, Baidu’s system could nearly match any other self-driving car, and his Lincoln had never been in an accident.
The vehicle moved like a very obedient child, running gingerly along the road. First, Apollo Go’s performance is smoother than manual driving. The vehicle gave the car in front more distance than a human would have, and it took more time to accelerate and decelerate. When our vehicle met a human-driven vehicle merging into the main road from a side road, it braked suddenly, which could be excused. Our driver honked the horn, which was the only occasion he intervened in driving. After the rapid brake, a voice prompt apologised to us.
The vehicle did not appear to overtake other vehicles. I met two road sweepers travelling at low speed just in front of me, but my vehicle did not change the lane even when the way was clear. The driver explained that the car would only leave the lane if it needed to turn left or right. When the vehicle encountered two road repairs in one lane 30 metres ahead, it changed the lane to avoid the first barrier, but then it went back to its initial lane. Later, it changed the lane again to avoid the second one. We can imagine such movements would easily be a problem on a busy road.
New mobility, new rules
To create a new transport mode, some existing habits and rules might need to change. Traffic rules are different among countries and even cities. In Beijing, vehicles that tend to turn right are not limited by traffic lights, which means they can turn right at any time. Therefore, vehicles have to avoid passer-by when passing a crossroad. Two limits make it difficult for an Apollo Go to navigate such a crossroad. First, since the vehicle was slower and more cautious than conventional ones, I asked the driver how the vehicle would perform in a busy area. “It’s OK to pass a crowded crossroad, but it’s very slow. If people get too close to the car, it will stop.” The second limit is that testing vehicles had never been operated in extremely busy areas and time. Compared with central Beijing, testing areas have a smaller population. The operation time of Apollo Go is 10am-4pm, avoiding rush hours. Although road tests are carried out in the real-world, it is almost the friendliest possible environment for a self-driving car. To accommodate the new mobility mode, the government may need to make new rules for vehicles turning right.
Baidu gave me a great self-driving experience on the public road, including both the user-interface and the road performance. The public test experience made me understand and trust self-driving cars and I know I am not the only one who feels the same way. Since Uber’s self-driving car killed Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old female who was crossing a high-way in Tempe, Arizona in 2018, we have been more cautious about safety issues on self-driving cars. However, when I talked to other passengers who tried Baidu’s self-driving vehicles, I find that they pay more attention to employment, ethical problems or legal issues than safety concerns, as the journey does not thrill them. For the public, trying a road test might be a perfect opportunity to engage with the cutting-edge technology. Baidu should keep its vehicles cautious. Involving the public in the road test could help the company reduce the information inequality between expertise and the public to earn more trust.