Chinese robotaxi startup Pony.ai has been given permission by California regulators to pilot its autonomous vehicles without a human safety driver behind the wheel in three cities.
While dozens of companies — 55 in all — have active permits to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver, it’s far less common to receive permission for driverless vehicles. Pony is the eighth company to be issued a driverless testing permit in the state, a list that includes Chinese companies AutoX, Baidu and WeRide as well as U.S. businesses Cruise, Nuro, Waymo and Zoox. Only Nuro has been granted a so-called deployment permit, which allows it to operate commercially.
The permit issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the agency that regulates automated vehicle testing, expands upon Pony’s existing activity in the state. Pony.ai has been allowed to test autonomous vehicles with safety drivers since 2017.
Under the permit, Pony.ai will be able to test six autonomous vehicles without a driver behind the wheel on specified streets within Fremont, Milpitas and Irvine. There are constraints to the permit. The vehicles are designed to operate on roads with posted speed limits not exceeding 45 miles per hour in clear weather and light precipitation. Testing will initially occur in Fremont and Milpitas weekdays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Companies that receive these driverless permits have to provide evidence of insurance or a bond equal to $5 million and follow several other rules, such as training remote operators on the technology. Driverless testing permit holders must also report to the DMV within 10 days any collisions involving a driverless test vehicle and submit an annual report of disengagements, according to the DMV.
Pony.ai, which was founded in 2016 by former Baidu developers James Peng and Lou Tiancheng, has landed a number of partners and investors in its relatively short existence. Last November, the company said its valuation had reached $5.3 billion following a fresh injection of $267 million in funding. The company, which operates in China and California, has raised more than $1 billion since its founding, including $400 million from Toyota. Pony has several partnerships or collaborations with automakers and suppliers, including Bosch, Hyundai and Toyota.
Pony is building what it describes as an agnostic virtual driver for all sizes of vehicles, from small cars to large trucks, and to operate on both ridesharing and logistics (delivery) service networks. The company said back in 2019 that it was working with OEMs and suppliers to apply its automated technology to the long-haul trucking market. But it’s perhaps best known for its effort around robotaxis.
Pony has tested ridesharing in Fremont and Irvine, California and Guangzhou, China. In 2019, a fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers equipped with a self-driving system from Pony.ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform began shuttling customers on public roads. The robotaxi service, called BotRide, wasn’t a driverless service, as there was a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. The BotRide pilot concluded in January 2020.
The company then started operating a public robotaxi service called PonyPilot in the Irvine area. Pony shifted that robotaxi service from shuttling people to packages as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world. In April, Pony.ai announced it had partnered with e-commerce platform Yamibuy to provide autonomous last-mile delivery service to customers in Irvine. The new delivery service was launched to provide additional capacity to address the surge of online orders triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pony.ai said at the time.