SHANGHAI — In 2009, 24 years after Beijing opened the domestic auto industry to foreign investment, China overtook the U.S. as the world's largest auto market. Six years later, it became the largest electric vehicle market, thanks to the rollout of government subsidies.
In recent years, dozens of Chinese cities have opened local roads to allow a growing team of self-driving technology companies to test robotaxis, a trend that promises to turn China into the world's largest market for autonomous vehicles in the not-distant future.
Among these cities, the latest is Suzhou, which has a population of more than 10 million and is about a one-hour drive west of Shanghai.
On Oct. 22, Momenta, a self-driving technology startup, became the first company to launch a robotaxi fleet in Suzhou. Residents in the city's Xiangcheng district can use a mobile phone app to book a ride.
Veteran software engineer Cao Xudong created Momenta in Beijing in 2016 with the financial backing of domestic venture capitalists. In 2017, the startup raised $46 million from a consortium of investors including Daimler and Nio Capital — a private equity firm associated with Chinese EV startup Nio.
In Xiangcheng, Momenta's robotaxis operate on roads that pass by residential areas, shopping malls, office buildings, schools and construction sites. The vehicles have drivers inside, ready to take control in case of emergencies.
Cao said his company plans to start removing drivers from the robotaxis in 2022. "They will become 100 percent driverless in 2024," he told Shift last month in a Momenta robotaxi, which was adapted from a Lincoln MKZ sedan. The vehicle operated without human intervention throughout the 7.5-mile drive, which took about 30 minutes.