Baidu’s Self-Driving Vehicles Take a Turn With Olympics Showcase

Baidu's Apollo robotaxis in action. (Baidu via PR Newswire)

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Cities usually have many reasons for bidding to host major sports events like the Olympics, but demonstrating to the world the best the city has to offer is often the primary motivation. Preparations for the games frequently include building out transit infrastructure that serves Olympic athletes and visitors during the games and also benefits residents long after the closing ceremony. These transport solutions can range from new roads or train lines to hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles have become examples of how cities plan to provide cutting-edge transport solutions to their citizens. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Hyundai offered demonstrations of its self-driving functionality to guests in vehicles operating on a controlled test loop. KT Corp. also ran what it called a 5G bus that demonstrated some of the in-vehicle connectivity features that will likely become commonplace in autonomous vehicles. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo would have presented one of the largest real-world tests of autonomous vehicles as Toyota planned to transport fans in its e-Pallete vehicles. COVID-19 caused the delay of the games to 2021 and prevented supporters from attending. Athletes still were able to try out rides in the vehicles but the tests ultimately were a disappointment after a Paralympic judo athlete suffered a “nonserious” injury from a collision with one of the vehicles.

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing promised another big opportunity for autonomous vehicle testing in a real-world situation, this time in vehicles made by one of China’s biggest technology companies, Baidu. Beijing’s strict COVID-19 protocols prevent any test rides for athletes but members of the public were able to ride in the shuttles prior to the start of the Games.

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The Olympic demonstrations of autonomous vehicles might not have been medal-worthy, but that should not distract from all the training that has gone on in the Olympic offseason. Beijing, Shanghai and California released separate reports in late January and early February detailing the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads in their respective geographies. The three reports offer varying levels of detail that correspond to the different regulatory conditions in each region. However, all three show that 2021 was a record year for autonomous vehicle testing with a combined 6 million miles driven in autonomous mode on public roads. In Shanghai autonomous vehicle testing increased nearly sixfold from 2020. This ramp-up in activity does not mean robotaxis are ready for all city streets. The deployment of self-driving vehicles will continue as staggered entries into tightly geofenced areas that have been thoroughly mapped.

Unlike many of the Olympians, autonomous vehicles won’t have to wait another four years for a chance to demonstrate what they’re trained to do. Real-world trials of AVs will continue. Cruise is among the latest to offer a driverless robotaxi service to the public in its home market of San Francisco. It is awaiting one additional permit from the California Public Utilities Commission before it can charge a fee for these rides. More companies ranging from Mobileye to Auto-X are targeting the deployment of their own commercial robotaxi services before the next Summer Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. By that time self-driving cars might not be enough to excite guests, with France already testing flying taxis ahead of the Games.