FREMONT, California — One of the world's highest-profile automakers, located in this East Bay suburb, has launched a feature called "Full Self-Driving." Despite its name, the technology requires the constant vigilance of human drivers, who remain responsible for all vehicle operations.
In the shadow of Tesla, another company only 2 miles down the road, Pony.ai, has developed actual Level 4 autonomous driving technology, meaning the vehicle can operate without any human oversight. Pony.ai holds growing ambitions of deploying robotaxis across the globe.
The company took another step closer to that goal in October, receiving authorization to conduct driverless testing on public roads in Beijing. The permit allows Pony to test without human safety drivers in a 7.7-square-mile area that includes major subway stations. It follows permits granted by Chinese authorities this year for testing of both autonomous cars and trucks on highways near the city.
Pony, which counts Toyota, Hyundai, FAW and GAC as automotive partners, is now approved for driverless testing in five cities on two continents. With $1.1 billion raised to date, including $400 million from Toyota, the company has, somewhat quietly, established itself as a global contender.
"It really is a blue chip company with a strong leadership team that has deep knowledge and experience," said Michael Dunne, founder and CEO of ZoZo Go, a consulting firm that specializes in helping U.S. automotive companies better understand Asian markets.
Beyond Beijing, Pony conducts driverless testing in Guangzhou and has a human safety backup aboard in Shanghai trials. In California, daily driverless testing is conducted in Fremont and Milpitas. The company runs further testing in Irvine, California.
An ever-expanding scope of geographies and operations is key to the company's strategy.
"Obtaining driverless test permits is solid proof of Pony.ai's leading position in the autonomous driving industry," said Ning Zhang, vice president and head of the company's Beijing R&D center.