By Michelle Toh, CNN Business
Baidu has unveiled plans for a self-driving electric car with a detachable steering wheel, marking another leap forward in China’s fast-paced robotaxi race.
The Chinese tech giant, the country’s answer to Google, unveiled the Apollo RT6, its sixth-generation autonomous vehicle, at its annual flagship conference on Thursday.
Baidu’s ride-hailing service, Apollo Go, currently operates in 10 Chinese cities. The new vehicle will be rolled out under this program next year.
Once regulators give the go-ahead, the Apollo RT6’s detachable steering wheel can legally detach, a company executive said Thursday.
Baidu offers its new design as a way to free up space for things like “extra seats, vending machines, desktop computers or game consoles”.
The company said its new self-driving car has significantly reduced production costs compared to previous versions, by around half. These cost savings will be passed on to passengers as the company prepares to introduce the cars to its existing fleet of robotaxis across the country, according to CEO Robin Li.
“We are heading towards a future where taking a robotaxi will cost half the price of a taxi today,” he said in a statement. “This massive cost reduction will allow us to deploy tens of thousands of [autonomous vehicles] across China.”
Baidu has made a name for itself as a massive search engine provider, but it has also long invested in self-driving technology in the world’s biggest car market.
In April, the company announced – along with another self-driving Chinese startup – that it would start allowing people in certain areas to book taxi rides without anyone driving.
In April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told analysts the automaker was aiming to launch mass production of its own robotaxi without a steering wheel or pedals in 2024.
Baidu said Thursday that its new model was ready for production, but did not disclose a manufacturing partner.
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