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Here’s what it looks like to ride a Chinese robotaxi with no steering wheel

Qian Jin

By Michelle Toh, CNN Business

Baidu has unveiled plans for an electric self-driving car with a removable steering wheel, marking another step forward in the fast-moving robotaxi race in China.

The Chinese tech giant, the country’s answer to Google, revealed 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 roll out through that program sometime next year.

Once regulators give the green light, the Apollo RT6’s detachable steering wheel will legally be able to come off, a company executive said Thursday.

Baidu is hawking its new design as a way to free up space for things like “extra seating, vending machines, desktops, or gaming consoles.”

The company said its new self-driving car has dramatically lowered the production costs from previous versions, by about half. Those cost savings will be passed on to passengers as the company prepares to introduce the cars to its existing fleet of robotaxis around the country, according to CEO Robin Li.

“We are moving towards a future where taking a robotaxi will be half the cost of taking a taxi today,” he said in a statement. “This massive cost reduction will enable us to deploy tens of thousands of [autonomous vehicles] across China.”

Baidu made its name as a massive search engine provider, but it has also long invested in self-driving technology in the world’s largest car market.

In April, the company announced — along with another Chinese self-driving startup — that it would start letting people in certain areas book taxi rides without anyone behind the wheel.

Other companies have showed off vehicles without steering wheels before, including GM and Honda, Google, and Mercedes-Benz.

In April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told analysts that the automaker was aiming to start mass production of its own robotaxi without steering wheels 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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