Autonomous driving company Pony.ai announced on Thursday that it had gotten approval from Beijing to remove the safety driver for part of its robotaxi business in a suburban part of the city.
The new permit requires a staff member to sit inside the vehicle, but not necessarily in the driver's seat.
Pony.ai can initially operate four robotaxis without safety drivers under the new rules, and expects to add more in the future, the company's spokesperson told CNBC.
"It's a critical milestone in the transition from testing driverless autonomous vehicles within Pony.ai to offering driverless robotaxi rides to public passengers," said James Peng, co-founder, and CEO of the startup.
In addition to Pony.ai, Baidu has also received the new robotaxi approval, according to Bejing authorities in the suburban Yizhuang district. The government added the operational area tripled to the equivalent of about 23 square miles.
The latest move comes in less than six months since the municipality allowed Baidu and Pony.ai to charge fees for robotaxis in Yizhuang. The approval to charge fares was the first by a major city in China.
Pony.ai received approval to conduct driverless testing without passengers in Beijing in October 2021 and in November 2021 became one of the first two autonomous driving companies to start charging fares for robotaxi services in Beijing.
In Guangzhou, the company started driverless testing in June 2021 and recently became the first and only autonomous driving company to receive a taxi license in China.
As of April 2022, Pony.ai’s autonomous vehicles have driven over 11 million (6.8 million miles) real-world autonomous kilometers globally, including over 200,000 (124,000 miles) driverless kilometers.
Founded in 2016 by Baidu veterans, Pony.ai has R&D teams and test fleeting in China and California, and its investors include Toyota and Sequoia Capital.