The first fleet of 50 self-driving taxis developed by a Chinese startup company is expected to hit the road in East China's Anhui province by March, which may give the nation a head start over other countries in terms of commercial autonomous vehicles.
Customers will be able to order self-driving taxis in Anqing, Anhui province, through a ride-hailing app, said Wang Jing, founder of JingChi Corp.
During the test period, the cab will have a "safety officer" in the driver's seat, said Wang, a former senior vice-president at Baidu Inc who used to run Baidu's autonomous driving division.
"As the government gradually shapes policies and regulations of automated vehicles and more passengers get used to the service, we would consider removing the safety officer in the future," he said in an interview.
If that happens, China would be two years ahead of a global target of commercial usage of self-driving vehicles set by the auto and technology industry.
JingChi joins a growing number of Chinese companies developing autonomous driving technologies, including Baidu. The internet search engine said on Thursday that its self-driving mini buses will enter trial operation by the end of July in cooperation with Chinese commercial vehicle manufacturer Xiamen King Long United Automotive Industry Co.
But some analysts said there is still a long way to go before self-driving vehicles enter large-scale commercial operation due to safety concerns.
"Self-driving technology, in general, is getting mature, but there are still obstacles for commercial use," Zhao Xiang, a senior analyst at Beijing-based internet consultancy Analysys.
The obstacles include the complexity of managing such vehicles on roads and the lack of relevant regulations, including insurance policies, Zhao said.
Other technological hurdles may include the accuracy of digital maps and the high cost of laser-sensing "eyes" used in self-driving car systems, Zhao added.
But Luo Libo, an analyst at GF Securities, pointed out that it was possible to reduce the cost of producing light detection and ranging devices as the market matures.
Earlier this month, Waymo, a self-driving car company created by Google, ran its autonomous minivans around Phoenix, Arizona, with nobody inside to grab the wheel. The company said it would allow the public to start riding in the fully self-driving vehicles in the next few months.
JingChi completed autonomous driving tests in a closed venue in less than five weeks. It had obtained a license for testing autonomous vehicles on California's public roads in June.
Then in September, it raised $52 million in funding－prior to the A funding round－led by Qiming Venture Partners.