AutoX COO Jewel Li talks benefits of robotaxis in China

Serving as AutoX’s COO since June 2017, Jewel Li is a mind in the AI world. Graduating from Wuhan University with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, she went on to receive a PhD in the US and worked as a researcher for IBM’s talented Watson team – you know, the computer that won USD1 million on Jeopardy. Honored as one of Silicon Valley’s 2018 Women of Influence, California-based Li has led a super impressive career – and we get the feeling she’s just warming up. 

In June, Li shared with That’s how self-driving cars are impacting the delivery business and whether Chinese drivers are ready to take their hands off the wheel.

How do you decide which vehicle models to use for AutoX’s RoboTaxi fleets?A combination of technology aspects related to the needs of autonomous driving, user experience perspectives, regulatory and operational aspects. 

Technology-wise, the vehicle models need to have high-quality drive-by-wire capability in order to be able to support autonomous driving. A drive-by-wire system allows a vehicle to be operated by computers. Our partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and other original equipment manufacturers (OEM) enables us to have access to the drive-by-wire system of the vehicles, with the support from OEM.

We have a variety of vehicle types and models to satisfy diverse user needs: SUVs, sedans, multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) and trucks. We also have a mixture of purely electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles and combustion engine vehicles. 

By joining forces with Alibaba’s Amap (Gaode), riders in Shanghai’s Jiading district now have quick access to AutoX’s robotaxis. What are the benefits of having the RoboTaxi service available on this platform?Our partnership with Alibaba’s Amap is deep and nationwide. In the future, we will roll out to more cities and larger regions. As an autonomous driving technology company, we view the partnership with a mobility platform company as equally important as the partnership with OEMs. These are the two sides of the ecosystem for autonomous driving. 

Our partnership with Alibaba Amap provides us with massive demand from real users. The most valuable data for us is from real users and real use cases. For example, real users in Shanghai use the robotaxis for their commute to work or the grocery store. These users usually rely on Alibaba Amap to fulfill their daily needs to move around. Now, the robotaxis driven by AutoX Drivers become an option for them when they have the same demands. Data from QuestMobile shows that Amap had 478 million monthly active users in March 2020. 

Autonomous driving technology will be adopted gradually, step by step, city by city. During this process, as autonomous vehicles (AVs) gradually become a majority among vehicles on the roads, it is crucial to have a mix of human drivers and autonomous drivers in order to complete the mobility service for real users. 

The massive amount of mobility data from Alibaba Amap provides AutoX drivers with valuable insights. For example, we are able to learn the best location to pick-up and drop-off passengers given a street address, and the detailed geolocation data such as how certain gates of a building are for exit only and forbid temporary parking. The mobility platform also tells our robotaxis where they should go when vacant between rides so that they are more likely to get rides.  

What impact could self-driving cars have on services like food and grocery delivery? Are there any other areas AutoX is focused on improving with the use of autonomous driving technology?We see great potential in self-driving cars for logistics and delivery. At AutoX, we focus on building the technology – the AutoX driver, which consists of the software, hardware and data service for autonomous driving. The same driver is designed to be integrated on various vehicle platforms, including passenger vehicles and logistic vehicles, such as trucks. We have been working with several partners for these uses.

In China, do you think drivers will be more willing to ‘give up the wheel’ compared to other countries, like the US?Due to the high population density and urban lifestyle in cities in China, giving up the wheel is a well-accepted idea. In fact, the level of car ownership is very low in China. Public transportation and shared mobility are deeply rooted in the culture and society. Robotaxis are an attractive substitute or experience upgrade for public transportation. 

By the end of the century, would you be surprised if people were still driving vehicles?Just like we can still see horses in some areas, by the end of the century, we expect most cars to be self-driving, but not all cars. Human-driven vehicles will remain in some special-use cases in certain regions.