In Beijing, self-driving cars are rolling without a driver behind the wheel.

What’s new: China’s capital city authorized Pony.ai and Apollo Go, a Baidu subsidiary, to deploy self-driving taxis without a human in the driver’s seat, Reuters reported. An authorization issued last November had allowed the companies to operate in the same area with safety drivers.

How it works: The robotaxis are restricted to a 23 square-mile zone in Beijing’s southeastern suburbs, home to roughly 300,000 residents. Rides are free, but both companies plan to charge in the near future.

  • The cars will operate between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. — unlike the night-time scenes depicted in the promotional clips like the one from Apollo Go shown above.
  • The taxis are permitted to pick up and drop off passengers only at specific locations. This eliminates the need for customers to find cars they ordered, and for cars to find the customers who ordered them.
  • Although the cars can operate without a safety driver, they must carry a human supervisor.

Behind the news: Autonomous taxis — with safety drivers — are operating in a number of Chinese cities including Shanghai and Shenzhen. All except Pony.ai have provisional licenses that require them to provide free rides. In April, Pony.ai received the country’s first authorization to charge robotaxi passengers.

Why it matters: Permission to operate autonomous vehicles in Beijing, which is home to over 20 million people, is a huge market opportunity. Permission to do it without safety drivers likely will represent a huge cost saving if the government relaxes the requirement to carry a supervisor. But the symbolism is an even bigger deal: If robotaxis can handle Beijing traffic, they may be ready for wider adoption. (Then again, gridlock isn’t the most challenging condition for an autonomous vehicle.)

We’re thinking: Safe adoption of self-driving cars still requires limitations on their range and cooperation with governments. Countries that aim to accelerate progress in this area should help entrepreneurs deploy vehicles in a relatively self-contained region and expand from there.

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